Turning Point in Bosnia

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Visceral satisfaction is the one undeniable result, at least in Western circles, after NATO retaliated massively to the Bosnian Serb shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace that left 37 dead. As air assaults were continuing against Serb military positions, President Clinton termed the largest operation in alliance history an "appropriate" response to another Serb atrocity and indicated his belief it would not interfere with U.S. peace initiatives.

Therein lies the test of this nervously timed initiative. The air attacks came less than a day after the Bosnian Serb "parliament" had accepted as a basis for negotiations a proposed U.S. plan for the ethnic partitioning of Bosnia. Raids were still going on when special U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke sat down to lunch in Belgrade with the president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, whose ethnic expansionism triggered the four-year conflict.

U.S. officials acknowledged there was a chance attacks could hurt the peace process. But NATO's "credibility" was felt to be on the line. And Mr. Clinton's chances of staving off a congressional resolution for unilateral U.S. arming of the Bosnian Muslims -- a catastrophic move, in his eyes -- rested on his ability to mount a tough response.

The initial reaction from the Serb side was inconclusive. "I think these bombs can destroy the peace process," declared Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. But the parliament's speaker, Momcilo Krajisnik, offered the contrary notion that "there is a big chance the negotiations will resume."

Much depends on the response of the Bosnian Serbs' outside patrons. Mr. Milosevic seems so desperate to be freed of U.N. sanctions choking his economy that he has distanced himself from the Karadzic faction. But he has to worry that NATO air strikes could lead to a Muslim offensive sending tens of thousands of refugees into Serbia.

Russia's President Boris Yeltsin deplored NATO's "cruel bombardment" and Moscow complained it was not consulted, only informed, before the Western raids. Washington obviously is figuring that Russia's need for Western help outweighs any obligations to fellow Slavs in the Balkans.

U.S. forces are getting more and more involved in a Balkan war in which American vital interests are not at stake. Thus the need for a quick and favorable acceptance of the U.S. partition plan.

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