SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Bosnia’s top officials, within reach of having a hated arms embargo lifted, are debating whether to seek a delay, Western sources say.
Their concern: dangers posed by a resulting U.N. withdrawal.
There is no wavering in the ultimate desire to end the embargo, imposed by the United Nations in 1991 throughout the former Yugoslav federation. It has badly handicapped Bosnian government forces in their fight against Serb nationalists, who were well armed before the ban.
But the timing of the U.S. government’s fall deadline for lifting the weapons ban, combined with the risk that will split a fragile Western consensus and trigger the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers, is potentially disastrous - and all sides know it.
What they’re up against:
-Winter is fast approaching, and nearly 2.8 million people in Bosnia will need food aid, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Major contributors to the peacekeeping force, which helps feed and care for Bosnians, have announced they will withdraw if the embargo is lifted. Britain and France made that warning formally to Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic last week. Other Western countries with peacekeepers in Bosnia have said if Britain and France go, so do they. Some, such as Canada, are considering leaving anyway.
-The United States is keen to keep peacekeepers in Bosnia because the Washington-backed Croat-Muslim federation created last March needs an independent third party to foster trust between the former enemies. Without it, the federation could collapse.
Peace between Croats and Muslims has eliminated one of two enemies facing the Bosnian government, and opened the supply route from Croatia for the illicit weapons supplies it receives. -The Bosnian government is worried about maintaining political stability if Bosnians decide government policy is the reason they are hungry this winter.
It already has accepted that the eastern Bosnian enclaves, cut off by Serbs from the government heartland, probably would be lost if the embargo is lifted. The enclaves of Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde, crowded with 115,000 people, are protected by U.N. soldiers and could not defend themselves if peacekeepers withdrew.
Weighing the dangers against winning the right to arm themselves that the Bosnian government has insisted on for 2 1/2 years, President Alija Izetbegovic is considering asking the United States to delay lifting the embargo by six months, Western diplomats confirm.
At least one Western source said Izetbegovic already had decided to seek the delay.
It is not clear where the idea of a delay originated, but the rationale is that the government could use the time to stockpile weapons that have been arriving since April. They also would not have to confront during the harsh winter a possible pre-emptive Serb strike once the embargo was lifted.
One European official, noting that it’s common knowledge that Bosnian forces were getting weapons, suggested the ″quality and quantity″ might be improved in what would amount to covert assistance.
However, President Izetbegovic has faced opposition from Prime Minister Silajdzic.
The prime minister maintains close tie to U.S. officials, and to Middle Eastern countries that have provided Bosnia much-needed hard currency to finance the war.
Silajdzic no longer trusts promises from the Western powers, particularly Britain and France. He fears that accepting a delay means losing the best chance to have the arms embargo lifted, sources close to the talks said.
He told NATO officials in Brussels this week that the arms embargo had achieved only ″death, misery and destruction,″ and argued that a credible military threat could push the Serbs to sue for peace.
How the Bosnian army would react is an open question.
One senior commander, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the military’s loyalty was with Izetbegovic but a request to delay lifting the arms embargo would be ″very unpopular.″
Izetbegovic is going to the United States for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. A meeting with President Clinton has been requested, and Izetbegovic is expected to present his decision then. Only a request from the Bosnian president himself could likely persuade the United States at this point to back off on plans to begin lifting the arms embargo unilaterally in mid-November.
Clinton has warned that unilateral action would seriously strain U.S.-European relations and threaten the stability of NATO. Senior advisers on Bosnia policy say what’s at stake is not so much Bosnia as the future of NATO, Russian-American relations and global stability.
But under congressional pressure, Clinton agreed to formally ask the U.N. Security Council to lift the arms embargo if the Bosnian Serbs did not accept the latest peace plan by Oct. 15. The plan, accepted by the Bosnian government, would give the Serbs 49 percent of Bosnia instead of their current 70 percent.
Russia, a traditional Serb ally with a seat on the Security Council, is expected to use its veto.
So Congress set a second, binding deadline of Nov. 15, for the United States to end participation in enforcing the arms embargo.
Congress has not committed the United States to arming the Bosnian government, though one provision calls for the U.S. military or ″the military forces of friendly states″ to train Bosnians outside the country.
But the intention would be clear, particularly to Islamic states that have long opposed the arms embargo. Some of them have been supplying arms clandestinely.