Bosnian Army Says Battle for Sarajevo Will Last Months
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Heralded as the Bosnian government’s largest and most ambitious campaign in three years of war, the battle to end the siege of Sarajevo will take months, army officers say.
``We’ve just started. This is only Phase One,″ said a senior Bosnian army official, shrugging off Bosnian Serb claims that the 10-day-old offensive already had collapsed.
The government says it never aimed to end the 38-month siege in one fell swoop. Instead, it expects a summer of intense assaults, followed by regrouping and consolidation in a patient effort to capture strategic heights over the supply routes Serbs need to maintain their stranglehold.
Questions remain about government casualties and its ability to use an advantage in manpower against hundreds of Serb guns perched on high hills around the city.
It also appears that the government’s Bosnian Croat allies, while offering artillery support west of Sarajevo, have not lent as much firepower or infantry as hoped.
Yet normally cautious U.N. officials, whose ability to monitor fighting is hampered by restrictions from both sides, say the Bosnian army has won some ground.
Government forces punctured Serb lines in at least a dozen places, advancing on four of those fronts, probed with artillery bombardments from inside the capital, and captured territory southeast of the city, said U.N. officials.
Even rebel Serb leader Radovan Karadzic talked late Friday of ``some initial successes″ by his Muslim-led foes, although he claimed they had lost 3,000 men and were beaten back.
Casualty figures are a closely guarded secret. Reporters and U.N. observers have been barred from hospitals in Sarajevo. Most casualties are ferried to well-guarded hospitals in Zenica, central Bosnia, and Tuzla in the north.
``The balance of forces is such that the Bosnians cannot conduct a blitzkrieg,″ said U.N. military spokesman Lt. Col. Gary Coward. ``Instead, we have seen a fairly plodding approach of infiltration and steady advances where they have been careful not to over-reach themselves.″
Neither side will say how many men or guns they have in and around Sarajevo. The theater is fairly large, encompassing the city, and 50 miles of frontline.
There are an estimated 13,000 Serb soldiers in the area, possibly augmented by widespread conscription. The government is thought to have some 25,000 men.
That reflects a Bosnia-wide manpower advantage of at least two-to-one for the government. But it does not match the three-to-one or four-to-one ratio that military textbooks estimate an attacker needs to overcome a well-armed foe.
The rebels had at least 250 heavy weapons in collection points now abandoned by U.N. peacekeepers, and probably have at least 300 big guns around Sarajevo, perched high on peaks that are easy to defend.
Government firepower is much less, although Sarajevo residents have noticed more outgoing fire recently.
Retaliatory Serb shelling is one price for the offensive. Sarajevo’s vulnerability leaves the government little choice but to go for a complete end to the siege. Anything less would be a hollow victory, for Serb guns could still pound the city of 280,000 at will.
But the stakes are not limited to ending the siege. The offensive also is an attempt to suck Serb troops into the Sarajevo theater in order to advance elsewhere in Bosnia and thus force the rebels back to peace talks.
Already, Bosnian government troops have advanced in north and northeast of Bosnia. They also appear to be making some headway towards Sarajevo from the eastern enclave of Gorazde.
Government forces have received artillery backing from the much better-equipped Bosnian Croats west of Sarajevo, said Bosnian army spokesman Lamia Bojadzic.
But cooperation with them remains uncertain. Western diplomats say the government is leaning on them to influence the Croats to do more.
``We have enough time,″ said a senior Bosnian officer, reflecting the officially upbeat mood. ″When the operation is over, the Serbs will sit around the negotiating table.″