VITEZ, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- As United Nations forces dug in their artillery for a well-publicized show of force near Sarajevo yesterday, Serbian forces took their business elsewhere, attacking the distant Muslim enclave of Bihac with renewed vigor and no U.N. response.
That development, plus further delays and uncertainty with the United Nation's Sarajevo operation, illustrated once again the surreal atmosphere enveloping the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.
Even after recent reinforcements and a fresh round of warnings to the Serbs, U.N. troops seem unable to cope with circumstances in which well-armed units can be halted by a local sentry or a farmer with a pitchfork, and in which the world body's various orders and ultimatums sometimes seem at cross purposes.
A spokesman for the British-led forces around Sarajevo continued to insist that his troops and cannon were deployed only to protect U.N. troops and convoys in and around the city, not civilians.
That seemed to go against the grain of an ultimatum delivered Sunday in Belgrade by U.S., French and British envoys to Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic. The warning vowed a strong response if the Serbs continued to attack U.N.-designated "safe areas" such as Sarajevo.
Two top U.S. officials made this same point yesterday.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the allies had made clear to General Mladic that they would defend all Bosnian safe areas.
Asked if the U.N. warning precluded air attacks around Sarajevo and Bihac, Defense Secretary William J. Perry said, "It does not rule that out. Indeed, quite the contrary."
Mr. Perry also said that if the Serbs violated the Gorazde zone, the allied air campaign would not necessarily be limited to the Gorazde area.
"This will be a disproportionate [NATO] response, and it could extend well beyond the neighborhood of Gorazde," Mr. Perry said. "It could extend over a much wider area."
also stressed that no amount of aggression would be tolerated.
"It should be clear that any attack, any level of attack, against Gorazde by the Bosnian Serbs will be inviting this response," he said.
But not all the confusion disappeared. The question of whether both peacekeepers and civilians were included in the warning persisted, and NATO ambassadors meeting in Brussels, Belgium, yesterday failed to agree on rules governing when to launch air attacks. Also, there were conflicting reports over whether the Serbian headquarters in Pale had been attacked by French bombers.
The Serbs have steadily ignored such warnings during the past two weeks, capturing the eastern Muslim enclave of Srebrenica while running off its 42,000 residents amid widespread reports of atrocities. They've also closed in on the heart of a second eastern enclave, Zepa.
Yesterday, the Bosnian Serb army stepped up its attacks near the northwest Muslim "safe area" of Bihac, in what one U.N. forces spokesman described as "the most considerable military action in Bosnia in several months."
Carefully avoiding attacks on the U.N. "safe area" within Bihac, they captured 30 square miles of territory and sent thousands of civilians fleeing, according to U.N. officials.
Joining in the offensive were anti-government Muslim rebels led by entrepreneur-warlord Fikrit Abdic and rebel Serbs from neighboring Croatia. Their cross-border attacks have stirred the Croatian army to mobilize ominously for a possible counterattack, which could widen the war.
Meanwhile, the Serbian forces that had provoked the U.N. reinforcement of Sarajevo by shelling U.N. bases and aid convoys showed little inclination to goad the U.N. reinforcements into a battle.
Despite the lack of opposition, the reinforcement operation continued to be hobbled by delays.
British artillery units were late in digging pits for their guns around Mount Igman, near Sarajevo's only open supply route.
A French contingent of 10 light tanks still hadn't reached its destination by yesterday evening, remaining held up at a Bosnian government army checkpoint. A communication problem between the Bosnian command and the checkpoint was blamed.
One of the lesser delays, but nonetheless symbolic of the United Nations' constraints, occurred when a British unit of Royal Engineers were stopped by Bosnian men and women who were turning hay in the road with wooden pitchforks.
"They wouldn't let us pass," Lance Cpl. Ady Hogg said. "It's their country. They can do what they want." So, members of Corporal Hogg's unit stepped out of their armored vehicles and washed up on the side of the road while the farmers pitched their hay.
Such delays left the United Nations' rapid reaction force facing the possibility that it might take two days to move into position on its first Bosnian mission, even though most of the units involved had to travel no more than 100 miles along paved roads, without opposition.
In Washington, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said President Clinton might call some senators in an attempt to influence today's vote on legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas requiring the United States to unilaterally lift the U.N. arms embargo on Bosnia. On Sunday, Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff, had said that Mr. Clinton would veto the legislation if it is passed.
In his comments, Mr. Perry emphasized that neither the United States nor NATO thought military action would solve the Bosnia crisis.
"What we are proposing is that the Bosnian Serbs agree not to attack Goradze, and that is a simple way for them to avoid this air campaign we're talking about."
He added: "We are looking for a diplomatic solution, but we cannot let Gorazde fall, we cannot let further atrocities occur in Gorazde while we are talking. We have to first of all stabilize the military situation."