WASHINGTON -- Even as the West courts Serbia's president in hopes of bringing peace to Bosnia and winning the release of the remaining United Nations hostages, his military is secretly continuing to deliver a range of assistance to the Bosnian Serbs, U.S. and European officials say.
The Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, vowed last year to seal the border between Serbia and Bosnia and won an easing of U.N. sanctions. Mr. Milosevic insists that since then only nonlethal aid has been sent to the Bosnian Serbs.
But U.S. and European officials with access to intelligence reports said the federal Yugoslav army was paying the salaries of many Bosnian Serb officers and is also supplying their forces with fuel, spare parts, training and ammunition.
Several U.S. analysts said the Yugoslav army provided the parts and technicians for maintaining the Bosnian Serb air defenses that recently shot down an F-16 on a NATO monitoring mission. The system remains electronically linked to the Yugoslav army's computers and radars, although there has been no evidence that the Yugoslav army was directly involved in shooting down the American plane, officials said.
While there are differences among analysts about precisely how much military materiel is flowing from Yugoslavia to the Bosnian Serbs, U.S. experts say that assistance from Belgrade has enabled the Bosnian Serbs to remain an effective fighting force.
"Despite what Mr. Milosevic would like you to think, they have not severed their ties," one administration official said of the militarydeliveries. "The support is there."
That view is not universally embraced by Clinton administration policy-makers, who have urged the negotiations with Mr. Milosevic, or by the government's intelligence analysts. Some believe Mr. Milosevic is acquiescing in his military commanders' support of their Bosnian Serb colleagues, rather than actively directing it.
Since the Bosnian Serbs began fighting three years ago in opposition to the declared independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina, U.S. intelligence agencies have mounted extensive efforts to eavesdrop on communications and compile satellite photographs of troop and equipment movements.
This has produced persistent reports that the Bosnian Serbs have continued to receive help from the old Yugoslav army, which is based in Belgrade, the capital of both Serbia and federal Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia now consists only of Serbia and Montenegro.
According to U.S. and European officials, the reports say the Bosnian Serbs' trucks, tanks and other heavy equipment are maintained with parts supplied by the Yugoslav army. U.S. officials said they have evidence of regular conversations and consultations between the Yugoslav army's general staff in Belgrade and the officers directing operations in Bosnia. They said Bosnian Serbs wounded in battle are flown by helicopter to Yugoslav military hospitals.
Intelligence reports about Mr. Milosevic's continuing role in the war raise a nettlesome question for European and U.S. leaders: Should the West lift economic sanctions against a government that appears to be sustaining the Bosnian Serbs' war effort, even as it pledges to do the opposite?
Several U.S. and European officials said that having decided not to directly confront the Bosnian Serbs, the West has little choice but to bargain with Mr. Milosevic. That conclusion, said a European official, has made both Washington and its European allies more eager to gloss over or play down reports of fuel and military assistance flowing to the Bosnian Serbs.
The talks with Mr. Milosevic are at a delicate turn. Some of the lesser economic sanctions against Serbia were lifted last year JTC after Mr. Milosevic announced that he would close the border with Bosnia. Now, the "Contact Group" of five nations -- the United States, Russia, France, Germany and Britain -- trying to find a peace formula for the Balkans is offering to suspend the remaining sanctions on Serbia if Mr. Milosevic recognizes Bosnia.