SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Bosnian Serb tanks thundered into the rapidly collapsing city of Gorazde yesterday, just hours after United Nations officials had proclaimed victory in negotiating a cease-fire with the rebels.
Triggering mass panic in the largest government-held enclave in eastern Bosnia, the Serbian invasion pressed on despite a call by the U.N. Protection Force for more air strikes against Serbian heavy weapons firing on the city, designated a U.N.-protected safe area.
"The Bosnian Serbs possess the capability to proceed at will into Gorazde," Chinmaya Gharekhan of India, the special adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General, said last night in New York.
The Security Council, in a nonbinding statement read late yesterday by its president, Colin Keating of New Zealand, said the 15-member body condemns "the escalating military activities by the Serb forces against Gorazde." It made no threat of force to enforce its condemnation.
Said Mr. Keating of the situation in Gorazde: "It has not fallen in the literal sense. It is threatened but resistance continues."
One report stated that 21 people had been killed and at least 55 wounded by Serbs in attacks that intensified in the afternoon and evening in Gorazde. The casualty report could not be independently confirmed.
The civilian chief of the U.N. mission, Yasushi Akashi of Japan, had announced shortly before the Serbian tanks rolled into Gorazde that he had won a cease-fire agreement that would allow the deployment of 350 U.N. troops to the region and compel the Serbs to withdraw from a military exclusion zone extending 1.8 miles from the center of the besieged city.
A rapid-deployment force of French, Ukrainian, British, Egyptian and Scandinavian troops had been on standby all day for dispatch to Gorazde, 35 miles east of Sarajevo, but was dispersed after it became clear that the cease-fire was being ignored.
Yesterday's events followed a familiar pattern drawn by Serbian rebels over the past two years of war: The political leader, Radovan Karadzic, strikes a conciliatory pose in negotiations while his military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic, carries on aggressive actions on the ground.
Over the past week, Serbian gunmen have taken more than 200 U.N. troops hostage, laid mines around weapons-containment sites and menaced peacekeeping operations in the capital, and shot down a British Sea Harrier on a low fly-over above Gorazde.
Blow to U.N. credibility
Gorazde's fall, which U.N. military officials now concede could be imminent, would deal a crushing blow to the credibility of the U.N. mission here -- as well as to Western policy on the Balkans.
The U.N. force's inability to halt the deadly assault on Gorazde also appeared to be encouraging Western leaders to look for an escape route from the volatile conflict as it seemed poised to escalate out of control.
Mr. Akashi had conceded a day earlier that it would be meaningless to continue operations in Bosnia unless the Serbian rebels abandoned their strategy of aggression and conquest.
Speaking with reporters yesterday, President Clinton said that U.N. officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina have concluded that further NATO air strikes would be ineffective against Bosnian Serb forces besieging Gorazde, and he stressed once more his hope of finding "a negotiated agreement" to the civil war.
"We have a diplomatic role, and we are doing our best to fulfill it," Mr. Clinton said during a trip to Virginia and North Carolina.
Charles E. Redman, the U.S. special envoy to the Balkans, said there was little appetite among U.N.-member countries for changing the current mission mandate to allow broader use of force.
"I don't want to speak for the U.N. . . . but I think they're thinking only of a pullout," he said.
Mr. Redman also dismissed as unlikely a broader involvement by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in pressuring the Serbs to cooperate in a more equitable solution to the crisis, claiming that the past week has demonstrated that air power has its limits.
The U.N. commander for Bosnia, British Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, called on NATO warplanes to seek out and destroy tanks threatening his troops and terrifying civilians in Gorazde, but for the second day running the bombing raids were called off without the jets having fired their payloads.
Bombing raid halted
Mr. Akashi ordered the military arm of the mission to halt the bombing raid because he was convinced that Bosnian Serb leaders were about to commit themselves to a broad peace settlement, a U.N. spokesman said.
Relief workers were helpless to evacuate or ease the plight of tens of thousands of Muslims fleeing the Serbian advance and thronging the U.N. office in desperate hope of rescue, said Kris Janowski, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Sarajevo. "Panic has broken out all over the city," Mr. Janowski said he was told.
In talk-show appearances, Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat; Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican; and John McCain, an Arizona Republican, all called on Mr. Clinton to urge the United Nations to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims -- or to unilaterally ship arms to the Muslims if peace talks remain stalled.