SARAJEVO, Bosnia -- One year ago, after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched two modest air strikes against an ammunition dump in Serb-held central Bosnia, Serb forces seized 270 U.N. peacekeepers, shackled them to potential targets and ordered them to plead on camera for NATO to stop the air attacks.
The humiliation lasted for weeks and led to outrage in many countries, but nowhere more than in France, whose troops made up more than half of the hostages.
French Gen. Bernard Janvier, then supreme U.N. military commander in the former Yugoslavia, was already an outspoken opponent of using NATO air power. Now, convinced that the West lacked the will for further military action, he decided to negotiate an end to the crisis, a close aide said.
Janvier arranged to see Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander, in the Serb-held city of Zvornik. Pleading for release of the U.N. captives, Janvier offered as a quid pro quo to halt future NATO air attacks against the Bosnian Serbs, the aide said.
"We were the supplicants," he said. "Janvier proposed the meeting. Janvier proposed the deal."
"The deal" left the United Nations powerless and the 40,000 Bosnian Muslims living under U.N. protection in the tiny "safe area" of Srebrenica all but defenseless. It led directly to the worst case of genocide in Europe since World War II -- the slaughter of most of the town's male population -- and the expulsion of its women and children.
Apart from The Netherlands, whose U.N. troops were forced to surrender the town, no government nor the United Nations has publicly accounted for its share of responsibility.
A three-month investigation by Newsday, which draws for the first time on secret U.N. correspondence and intercepted Bosnian Serb communications, has revealed that Janvier and his civilian boss, Yasushi Akashi of Japan, played central roles.
"They were the crucial players. They held the controls," said U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia John Menzies.
The investigation also found that some top U.N. military aides had predicted the Serb attack on Srebrenica months before it occurred and advised that the only defense was NATO air power. But until the day the town fell, U.S. intelligence did not correctly analyze Serb aims.
"Intelligence did not prepare us adequately for the attack," said Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs at the time.
U.S. intelligence also did not detect evidence of mass murders until nearly three weeks after the event, despite urgent appeals from the Bosnian government. But Newsday has obtained Bosnian army intelligence intercepts of radio communications by Bosnian Serb commanders ordering the execution of captured Muslim males.
The June 4 understanding at Zvornik led to the freeing of the hostages by mid-June. But five weeks after the meeting, the halt in NATO air support played a key role as Mladic conquered Srebrenica, and according to witnesses, personally supervised the massacre of up to 8,000 members of its male population. The Hague War Crimes Tribunal has indicted Mladic on charges of genocide for his actions at Srebrenica and elsewhere.
U.N. experts and Western intelligence officials link the planning, supplying and execution of the attack to the army of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But the U.S. government has never blamed Milosevic, on whose help it has counted to draft the Dayton peace accords and force the Bosnian Serbs to go along.
"We shouldn't have let it happen," a White House National Security Council official told Newsday. "It was a major failure of the international community. We bear our share of responsibility."
As much as it is a tale of lack of will, the fall of Srebrenica is also a tale of two generals: Janvier, who opposed the use of force, and British Lt. Gen. Rupert Smith, the U.N. commander in Bosnia, who believed the United Nations had to use force to remain in Bosnia.
When Smith arrived in the Bosnian capital in January 1995, he set up an intelligence cell which by early April determined that Mladic would make a major push by summer to seize three eastern safe areas near the Serbian border: Srebrenica, with 40,000 population; Zepa, with 15,000; and Gorazde, with 50,000.
Janvier felt that holding the enclaves entailed risks that countries contributing U.N. troops would not accept. He told the Security Council May 24 that Bosnian government forces were sufficient to defend Srebrenica, that U.N. troops should be withdrawn, and that NATO air power was not needed.
The Bosnian Serbs had blockaded Srebrenica for two years, but starting June 3, when Mladic's forces seized a Dutch observation post, there were daily incidents in which the Serbs fired at Dutch posts.
On June 9, Akashi summoned Janvier and Smith to resolve their differences.
Smith wanted the United Nations to "establish ground rules and declare we are prepared to fight."
Janvier objected: "I insist we will never use force and impose our will on the Serbs."
Akashi sided with Janvier.
When the attack on Srebrenica came, it was organized with maximum efficiency and executed with breathtaking speed. The Bosnians were outnumbered and outgunned.
The Dutch U.N. force there was down significantly because the Serbs had refused to allow 150 to return from leave.
On July 7, U.N. military observers appealed to the United Nations to "stop this carnage and damage to civilian property in a U.N.-declared safe zone."
But the observers' commander in nearby Tuzla issued a sanguine report asserting it was "very unlikely" that the Serbs "intend to launch full-scale attack" because "liquidation of a registered population of this size would be impossible" and removal of the population would be impossible without U.N. cooperation.
On the eve of Srebrenica's final day, top military and civilian staff in Zagreb held a crisis meeting at which almost everyone, including one of Janvier's aides, called for urgent air support.
But Akashi informed U.N. headquarters that Janvier had blocked air power because "the fighting was by infantry, thus making means other than air power preferable."
Had Janvier held back use of air power because of the understanding with Mladic?
Akashi denied such a deal to the United Nations and repeated his denial in an interview for this story. But U.S. officials and many of Akashi's U.N. colleagues are convinced there was a deal.
Janvier declined repeated requests for an interview, and the French government refused to comment.
Pub Date: 5/30/96