WASHINGTON -- Five days after a stark U.S.-backed warning, Serbian forces besieging Sarajevo are starting to talk their way out of the threat of air strikes next week.
With six days left before the deadline passes for NATO to begin air strikes, negotiations between United Nations commanders and Bosnian Serb gunners have assumed center stage. Meanwhile, some U.N. spokesmen's comments suggest that they might be willing both to let the deadline slip and to accept certain Serbian conditions for surrendering their guns.
Vowing an end to empty threats, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization demanded last Wednesday that Serbs either withdraw their heavy artillery beyond a 12.4-mile radius of
Sarajevo by Feb. 21 or place the guns under U.N. control. Otherwise, NATO warned, the weapons and other targets would be bombed.
NATO also threatened air strikes in response to any shelling of civilians, such as the attack that killed 68 Sarajevans on Feb. 5.
As of yesterday, only 28 Serbian heavy guns -- out of an estimated 300 or more -- had been placed under U.N. control.
Meanwhile, U.N. spokesmen have treated seriously Serbian demands that Bosnian Muslim soldiers withdraw to barracks if the Serbs are going to surrender their heavy guns. The Serbs argued that the Muslims outnumbered them.
U.N. officials also suggested that the ultimatum might not be hard and fast. "This is a NATO ultimatum; it is not a U.N. ultimatum," a spokesman for the U.N. Protection Force, Lt. Col. William Aikman, was quoted as saying.
Such comments were ruled out of line by U.N. headquarters in New York yesterday, where officials want to show unity behind NATO's threat.
In Sarajevo, the U.N. commander for Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, said yesterday: "Any heavy weapons [near Sarajevo] will be either under U.N. control or subject of an air attack."
But the earlier comments pointed to potential problems in carrying out the ultimatum.
If Serbs are clearly seen to be balking as the ultimatum passes, there is little doubt here and at the United Nations that bombs would fall.
But if the Serbs have largely complied and are holding on to some weapons to protect against anticipated Bosnian advances, the decision will be more difficult.
Questioned yesterday, President Clinton passed up the opportunity to deliver a new warning to the Serbs and instead pointed to past signs of determination by U.N. Secretary- General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and U.S. allies.
"I expect that the terms of the NATO agreement will be followed," he said at a news conference with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
"Keep in mind, the secretary-general of the United Nations asked us to take action. We agreed to take action. All along the way, the United States made clear that if we were going take this step, we had to be prepared to take the step," Mr. Clinton said during a brief White House news conference.
"And we were assured all along the way that our allies in NATO and the secretary-general agreed. So I don't believe there is a fundamental misunderstanding on that point."
Previous NATO threats of air strikes were not carried out because U.N. forces on the ground sought to achieve the same objectives through negotiations with the Serbs. As a result, NATO did not back up threats to protect U.N.-declared "safe areas," to use force to open the airport at Tuzla to aid deliveries or to enforce a no-fly zone over Bosnia.
Even the latest NATO threat requires the United Nations to give the order before an air strike could occur.
This time, U.S. officials insisted last week, the threat was more serious because Mr. Boutros-Ghali had already signaled approval of air strikes in response to renewed shelling of Sarajevo.
Sir Michael, a Briton, was widely seen to be taking a tougher posture toward Serbs than previous U.N. commanders did.
U.S. special envoy Charles E. Redman "got a reassuring and clear-cut response" from Sir Michael yesterday, a senior U.S. official said. Particularly, he vowed to "repel with force" any attempt by Serbs to retake weapons place under U.N. control.
But a Western diplomat at the United Nations acknowledged yesterday that while NATO's threat hasn't receded, "no one actually wants to use air strikes. If this can be settled by negotiation, everyone will be very happy."
Allowing heavy weapons to be placed under U.N. control, rather than withdrawn 12.4 miles, adds complications to any plans for air strikes, one U.S. official said.
First, it diminishes chances that Serbs would themselves withdraw beyond the artillery-free zone, as U.S. officials initially hoped. Another U.S. official said Serbs may remain on the hills above Sarajevo to repel any anticipated Muslim incursions.
Second, it means that U.N. troops will have to be on hand to watch them, leaving these weapons safe from bombs.
The advantage in having the weapons collected under U.N. supervision is that they can't be transported elsewhere for use against Bosnian Muslims.