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Irate Bosnians Want NATO To Strike at Serb Attackers

ZAHID CUBRO, wounded in an attack on a Sarajevo tram, exudes nearly as much disdain for NATO peacekeepers as for the Bosnian Serbs who fired the missile at the tram in which he, his daughter, and nephew were riding on Tuesday.

''I don't expect anything from IFOR if they do what they did last night,'' Mr. Cubro says of NATO's Implementation Force policing the US-brokered Bosnia peace agreement. ''Why didn't they attack [the Serbs] positions?''

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In fact, French IFOR troops who saw the tram struck instantly fired back at the grenade launching point in the Serb-held, front-line neighborhood of Grbavica. They also searched for the attackers and for the rocket launcher, which they recovered on Wednesday.

But the perception of Mr. Cubro, shared by many other Bosnians, underscores a public confidence problem IFOR is encountering here. A resolution of that problem is important to the success of the Dayton accord.

Public confidence in IFOR is essential to its ability to perform its job of providing the stability needed to allow reconstruction, reconciliation, and free movement to take root in Bosnia. A lack of such confidence could encourage opponents, especially Serbs, to try to sabotage the accord.

''If you keep leaving the impression that there is a vacuum, the vacuum will keep being tested,'' Bosnian Foreign Minister Mohamed Sacirbey says in an interview.

The ire with IFOR appears unjustified. Implementation of the peace plan is widely acknowledged as smooth despite some problems. The rival armies in some places are even ahead of schedule in marking mine fields and withdrawing their forces in line with a Jan. 19 deadline. Instead, IFOR's problem stems from more of a public perception of confusion over its mission.

It began when IFOR commanders enthusiastically urged residents of Muslim-dominated Sarajevo to use the one open highway connecting the city with the outside world. But when Serb police in the suburb of Ilidza seized more than 16 hostages using the road, IFOR officials disclaimed responsibility. The road's security, they asserted, was a matter for the Bosnian rivals and an international police force that had not yet begun to function.

Then came the tram attack in which one person was killed and 16 were injured. It was the bloodiest incident in Sarajevo since the signing of the peace accord. IFOR officials, however, labeled it a ''criminal act'' and an ''isolated terrorist-type activity'' perpetrated by rogue assailants.

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Col. Mark Rayner, a senior IFOR spokesman, added that the attack provided a ''clear indication that the parties continue to lack complete control'' over their soldiers.

''It's a police matter,'' Colonel Rayner told reporters on Wednesday. ''We are not a police force. We are an army. ''

Such comments clearly underscore the determination of US Adm. Leighton Smith, the IFOR commander, to avoid ''mission creep'' and concentrate his limited resources on their main job of deploying along front lines. NATO and US officials say one reason the just-ended UN peacekeeping force failed was that it had too much to do with too little.

But for many Bosnian Muslims, the IFOR statements were galling. It seemed IFOR left open the possibility that someone from their side might have fired on the tram. But more important, IFOR appeared to be avoiding the most logical explanation for the attack: a deliberate Serb attempt to undermine the accord because it turns their areas of Sarajevo over to the Bosnian government.

IFOR, Mr. Sacirbey says, ''is so anxious to avoid mission creep that they are backpedaling.''

For many Sarajevans, IFOR's apparent refusal to hold Serbs accountable for the Ilidza abductions and the tram attack is frighteningly similar to the weakness of the UN Protection Force.

City residents remember bitterly UNPROFOR's failures to protect the UN-designated ''safe areas'' of Srebrenica, Zepa, and Bihac and how it stood by while they endured more than three years of siege and bombardments that claimed more than 10,000 lives. IFOR has a much stronger mandate, as evidenced by the factions' general compliance with the peace accord. But perceptions are extremely important.

''Communications is essential here. Communications sends out the message as to who is taking responsibility,'' Sacirbey says. ''Maybe we have UNPROFOR hangover here.''

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