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Bosnia Showdown Brings West to War's Brink

In taking UN hostages, Serbs hold the cards against NATO

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THE violent collision between Bosnian Serbs and international forces has brought their mission in Bosnia to a strategic crisis, UN peacekeepers believe.

Even before the crisis erupted last week, there was growing recognition that the humanitarian tasks set for the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia were increasingly out of tune with the military challenges and the political will of the governments that sent them here.

A review of UNPROFOR's mandate was already under way at the Security Council and among members of the ''contact group,'' made up of France, Britain, the US, Germany, and Russia. UNPROFOR officials on the ground in Bosnia hope the current crisis will at least produce a more workable framework for the peacekeeping mission.

At least 330 UN personnel are under threat at Serb hands in one way or another. Most clearly in the firing line were about 20 UN military observers who were shown on Bosnian Serb television shackled, Baghdad-style, to various potential NATO strike targets.

Faced with the blunt Serb threat to kill hostages if bombing continued, the UN suspended its call for NATO action until its political sponsors decide to go further down a road that would almost certainly involve casualties.

''Apart from backing down and negotiating, the only other option is to escalate the situation and try to get a political settlement,'' says UNPROFOR political spokesman Alexander Ivanko. ''But to do so, there has to be 100 percent backing by the international community, by the troop-contributing nations, and by the national capitals.

''We cannot put at risk their soldiers without them saying they are willing to take casualties,'' he adds.

So the world powers were again thrown into disarray by Bosnian Serb defiance. UNPROFOR command on the ground and its political sponsors are trying to decide how to proceed -- and who should take responsibility for the consequences.

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