Serbs in Bosnia vow to retaliate if allies attack Western diplomats call warnings a bluff


BELGRADE -- Bosnian Serb radicals would respond to a Western military attack on Serbian facilities in Bosnia with immediate reprisals against allied personnel and possible missile attacks against neighboring countries, Bosnian Serb sources have warned.

The warnings from sources linked to the Bosnian Serb government have been widely reported and discussed in Serbian newspapers. There has been persistent speculation that fanatical nationalists would resort to taking foreign hostages in case of U.S. air strikes on Bosnian Serbs.

The Royalist Party of Serbia vowed in a statement that its members would kill two United Nations peacekeepers for every Serbian killed in Bosnia. The leader of the ultranationalist Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj, has threatened retaliatory rocket and missile attacks against civilian targets in Italy, Croatia and Austria. Another target frequently mentioned is the nuclear power plant at Krsko, on the border between Slovenia and Croatia.

The warnings reflect the sort of price the European allies feared they would have to pay for the military action President Clinton had in mind to bring the Serbs to heel.

Western diplomats here believe that the threats constitute a desperate bluff by the Serbian radicals, including Bosnian parliamentary deputies in the Banja Luka area. It is seen as part of a campaign of psychological warfare to forestall the air strikes that the United States appears to have abandoned for the time being.

"I'm inclined to look at it as bluster," said a senior Western diplomat here. "But I don't have an inventory of everything they have on the ground. You can't exclude the possibility that there are crazy people who would like to take the conflict beyond the local theater."

But France has taken seriously the potential threat of hostage taking. Two weeks ago, the French withdrew 340 French U.N. peacekeepers stationed at Pancevo, just outside Belgrade.

At the same time, all Western embassies here have increased their security.

"We are monitoring the situation and are always prepared to take appropriate steps to protect the security of embassy personnel and facilities," a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy said. "There are no plans at the moment to reduce the embassy staffing or to force the embassy dependents to leave Serbia and Montenegro," the two republics that make up the new Yugoslavia.

Serbs recently gave an example of the extremes to which they are likely to go. During a Croatian attack on the disputed zones in Serbian-held Krajina three months ago, Serbian radicals set off explosives that heavily damaged the Peruca hydroelectric dam. Only the rapid reaction of international experts prevented a catastrophe in which thousands of people might have been killed.

This sort of inclination makes the missile threat all the more meaningful.

The Bosnian Serbs possess surface-to-surface Soviet-made Frog-7 rockets with a range of about 50 miles, according to Western military sources here. These weapons are under the control of the most radical Bosnian Serbs in the Banja Luka area who have consistently opposed Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

Diplomatic sources here say the 389th Battalion of the old Yugoslav People's Army remained in Banja Luka after the old federal army withdrew from Bosnia-Herzegovina in May 1992. According to Belgrade press reports, the unit's commanders and "the people of Banja Luka" did not allow the ballistic missiles to be withdrawn.

Well-informed Yugoslav sources said that the old Yugoslav army was also equipped with an unspecified number of Soviet-made Scud B missiles with a range of about 200 miles. The Scuds are the same type of missile the Iraqis used during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Mr. Seselj, the Radical Party leader in Serbia, said that the Serbs have ground-to-ground FF-22 missiles capable of reaching targets in Italy and Austria. Western specialists believed this to be a variant of the Scud B. Diplomatic sources said that until recently they had no evidence of the presence of Scud missiles in Yugoslavia.

In Washington, Pentagon sources said they did not believe that Belgrade had obtained Scud missiles, though they conceded that the Soviet-designed weapons have been available in the world's arms markets.

Military sources in Washington credited the Serbs with having a shorter-range and older missile, the Styx, a Soviet-designed naval missile that cruises for about 25 miles at subsonic speeds and dives toward its target.

Anti-aircraft missiles in Serbian forces' hands, the sources said, include Soviet-designed SA-2s, used by North Vietnam during the Vietnam war; SA-6s, which plagued the Israeli air force in the 1973 Middle East war; and SA-7s, which are fired from the shoulder.

Milos Vasic, a military expert for the independent Belgrade weekly Vreme, agreed with the view that the Bosnian Serb radicals are bluffing and that they do not possess Scud B rockets. He said that an attack on the Krsko nuclear power plant could be launched with Frogs deployed in Krajina, but that that would be an act of lunacy that would produce an ecological disaster and inflict great damage on Serbia as well.

Krsko is located on the Sava River, which flows to Belgrade where it enters the Danube. Slovenia's authorities have announced that the plant is being shut down for routine maintenance.

The retaliation threats come at a time when Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and his military ally, the Yugoslav Chief of Staff Gen. Zivota Panic, are both trying to distance themselves from the Bosnian Serbs.

Mr. Milosevic has tried to convene parliamentarians from all Serbian regions -- Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Krajina -- to a DTC joint meeting here to decide on the future of the Vance-Owen peace plan that all but the Bosnian Serbs support.

But the Bosnian Serbs rejected Mr. Milosevic's proposal for a meeting and announced that they are proceeding with their referendum on the peace plan this weekend. The meeting also was turned down by the Krajina Serbs, suggesting that Mr. Milosevic may be losing control over that Serbian enclave in Croatia.

Much will depend on the links between the Yugoslav high command and Bosnian Serb military officers, most of them former Yugoslav army officers.

When the formal links were severed last May, according to diplomats here, "command and control became a major problem." But they still believe that the Yugoslav military could exercise a moderating influence on the Bosnian Serbs.

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