VITEZ, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The United Nations put its battered capability and resolve on the line once again in Bosnia yesterday, ordering tanks, artillery and more than 800 French and British soldiers of its rapid-reaction force toward the besieged capital city of Sarajevo.
The goal of the mission was to dig in on Mount Igman, along the only open supply route into the city, and from there fire at any Serbian tank or gun that targets U.N. forces and aid convoys.
The action came just hours after Bosnian Serb shelling killed two French U.N. peacekeepers and wounded four others.
While the convoy was a formidable show of force as it rolled toward Sarajevo late last night -- with 12 artillery pieces, 10 light tanks, 40 well-armed armored troop carriers and several mortars and anti-tank weapons -- it was operating under the same narrow mandate that has so often resulted in U.N. embarrassment before.
Lt. Col. Jeff Cook, commander of the British wing of the Multinational Task Force anchoring the United Nations' rapid-reaction force, took pains yesterday to point out that his units will only fire on Serbian artillery that is targeting U.N. soldiers or convoys.
That would leave the Bosnian Serbs free to fire whenever it liked against the homes, schools and hospitals of Sarajevo, and leave U.N. forces again open to the Bosnian government criticism that they are there only to protect themselves, not civilians.
Acting even before Colonel Cook made his statements, the Bosnian Serb rebels fired more shells on Sarajevo, killing at least two civilians, wounding 11 more and leaving streets deserted.
The rebels also increased their offensive on another U.N. "safe area," the northwestern enclave of Bihac, forcing government soldiers and refugees to flee. And the Muslim enclave of Zepa in the east was shelled for a third straight day.
The French peacekeepers ordered to Sarajevo included a 500-strong armored column of the French Foreign Legion that has been in western Bosnia. They are being combined with hundreds of British troops based in Vitez. The British firepower includes 105 mm artillery that can hurl a 36-pound shell 10 miles, giving the U.N. mission greater firepower than before.
In Paris, Defense Minister Charles Millon also said that 155 mm heavy artillery pieces had left France for the former Yugoslavia. He said Sarajevo's airport, closed for months by the Bosnian Serbs, would have to be reopened and thought would be given to reopening the main highway to Sarajevo through Serbian territory.
In bringing to bear such a large, well-armed force in such a dangerous area, the operation risks the first major combat between Serbian and U.N. forces if a provocation were to trigger an exchange of fire.
"Any operation is risky," Colonel Cook said before departing the British base at Vitez. "Quite clearly, we aim to limit those risks."
The ideal result for the U.N. force would be a minor Bosnian Serb provocation, followed by a sharp, quick response that would silence the guns in the hills around the city.
But experience has shown the Serbs to be masters at exploiting the weak spots in U.N. mandates and ultimatums. Colonel Cook said that the operation would not be indefinite, and others indicated that the artillery might be withdrawn within a week, meaning that the Bosnian Serbs might only have to wait before resuming their shelling of convoys.
Yesterday's move toward Sarajevo was the first major action by the rapid-reaction force, which was mobilized in June after Bosnian Serb forces seized more than 370 U.N. soldiers as hostages and "human shields" after NATO airstrikes on Serbian ammunition depots in May.
By midnight, an engineering unit had reached Mount Igman to begin digging pits for the artillery. If all went well, the guns were to be in place by dawn.
As the task force headed toward Sarajevo last night, the soldiers were upbeat.
"I'm quite looking forward to getting out and doing a job for once," said Lance Cpl. Russ Underwood, of Bristol, England. "I think we have been far too soft."
The United Nations' track record in aiding Sarajevo has had few successes. After a mortar shell landed in the city's Markale Market in February 1994, killing 66 people, a NATO ultimatum dTC threatening airstrikes resulted in all tanks and heavy artillery being moved into depots or withdrawn to at least 12 miles from the city. For several months an uneasy peace prevailed.
But piece by piece both sides moved their big guns back into action, and heavy shelling of the city has resumed, with the Bosnian Serbs still holding the majority of weapons.
The United Nations designated Sarajevo, Bihac, Zepa, Srebrenica, Tuzla and Gorazde as "safe areas" two years ago. But the Bosnian Serbs captured Srebrenica on July 11, after encountering only token U.N. resistance, and then pushed their offensive toward Zepa and Bihac.
In neighboring Croatia yesterday, Dutch Defense Minister Joris Voorhoeve said Dutch troops had evidence of Serbian soldiers executing at least nine Muslim men after capturing Srebrenica.
The 12,000-man rapid-reaction force was created by Britain, France and the Netherlands last month.