WASHINGTON -- In the worst atrocities seen in Bosnia in three years, Bosnian Serbs have unleashed a new "ethnic cleansing" campaign complete with some of the same the acts of terror that shocked the world in 1992. But this time there is also a difference.
This time, the terror has occurred where the West was committed to preventing it, and after three years of lessons about brutality toward civilians.
But now, as in the past, the United States and its European allies have refrained from either stopping it or retaliating, and are considering military action only in hopes of preventing still more conquests.
"It's increasingly hard to explain why it is we are not doing anything of value," said Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations.
In 1992, the Bosnian Serbs won the bulk of the territory that they still hold by forcing thousands of Muslims and Croats from their villages and beginning systematic rapes and the burning of homes. Thousands of Muslims were held in concentration camps, where many were tortured or killed.
The point of terrorizing civilians, a number of human rights workers noted at the time, was to make them too frightened ever to want to return to their homes.
This week, the Bosnians Serbs did much the same thing, but in an area the United Nations had declared a "safe area."
"This is obviously the most blatant set of atrocities since the discovery of the Omarska camp," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch in New York. He was referring to the discovery in 1992 of one of the principal Serbian-run concentration camps, one so harsh that it prompted the United Nations to create a war-crimes tribunal for the Balkans.
"The scale of the displacement is also unparalleled since the early months of the war, again in 1992," Mr. Roth said. Given past Serbian behavior, he expects "not only widespread rape but widespread executions. I'm fearful it's taking place right now."
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said yesterday that "the United Nations has received reports of rape and of murder by the Bosnian Serb army from many of the refugees who are arriving at the United Nations camp in Tuzla, which is inside Bosnian government territory. And the United Nations is also estimating that several thousand refugees are unaccounted for."
"We are deeply concerned by these reports, and the United States government and the international community will hold the Bosnian Serb leadership personally responsible for their actions and for the safety of all of the refugees," he said.
Just how far the West will go in holding them responsible is questionable, however.
A war-crimes tribunal led by the noted South African jurist, Richard Goldstone, is now gathering evidence in The Hague.
But Mr. Roth said that the American and allied diplomats seeking a negotiated end to the conflict had dropped demands that Serbia cooperate with war crimes investigators and extradite those charged.
As for a military response to the latest acts of Serbian aggression, the United States and Britain hesitated to endorse the demand by French President Jacques Chirac for joint military action, to prevent the Serbs from overrunning another U.N. "safe area," at Gorazde.
Mr. Chirac called Thursday for joint action by French and British ground forces that are part of a newly created rapid-reaction force, combined with U.S. assistance in the form of helicopter transportation and overhead protection with the threat of airstrikes.
Yesterday he tried to shame the Western allies into agreeing to respond.
"Up to now the contacts the French government has made have not been positive," Mr. Chirac said in Paris. "I deplore that."
He compared the lack of international reaction to the capture of the "safe area" to "the talks that Chamberlain and Daladier held," referring to the appeasement of Hitler in 1938 by British and French prime ministers.
Britain agreed only to discuss military plans at a meeting in London tomorrow involving each country's top military official, including Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both Britain and France said that a second "safe area," the town of Zepa, probably will fall to the Serbs before any allied response.
A senior State Department official said that the United States still lacked a clear understanding of what Mr. Chirac desired, and said the United States had an obligation to weigh any plan carefully before agreeing to it.