Bosnia: An Unholy Alliance

This is Bosnia's endgame. Last week, in the Croat-held town of Kiseljak about T18 miles northwest of Sarajevo, three Serbian tanks pulled up to a checkpoint manned by Croatian Defense Council soldiers. No shots were fired. Instead, the tanks proceeded south to a front line where the Croat and Muslim-led government forces have been pounding each other for weeks. The Serbs returned the favor, allowing 20 busloads of Croat troops to pass unmolested through a Serbian checkpoint near the Bosnian capital. Then the Croats headed north toward the town of Maglaj to join Serbs who were squaring off against Muslims. "We are all together now," a Serbian soldier told Tony Land, head of the Sarajevo office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "We're even selling our tanks to the Croats."

Serbs cooperating with Croats? Only months ago such an unholy alliance would have been unthinkable, even in the Balkans, where political ties, like cease-fires, are routinely made and broken in the same week. Croats and Serbs have been on opposite sides of three particularly brutal conflicts in the past 50 years. Lately, though, they have found a common enemy: the Muslims. It's no coincidence that SerbCroat military collaboration comes on the heels of a joint proposal by Belgrade and Zagreb to partition Bosnia along ethnic lines-in effect, creating Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia, while leaving two land-locked Muslim enclaves. Bosnians who are bitterly opposed to the plan may be more easily defeated on the battlefield than at the negotiating table.

Suspicions of collusion are hardly new. Months before Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic declared war on Croatia in the summer of 1991, he met with its president, Franjo Tudjman, to decide how to carve up Bosnia between them. But when Serbia attacked Bosnia a year later, Croats and Muslims became nominal allies. That partnership dissolved recently over fiercely contested territory in central Bosnia; in mid-May, Serbian and Croatian military commanders signed a U.N.-brokered cease-fire. When the central Bosnian town of Travnik fell to the Muslims, Serbs helped evacuate Croatian civilians and soldiers. Two weeks ago Croatian political leader Mate Bohan and Radovan Karadzic, the self-styled "president" of the Bosnian Serb Republic, met in Montenegro for secret talks. "I don't think they were discussing mutual friends," says a U.N. relief official in Sarajevo. Serbs have opened at least two of their hospitals to wounded Croat soldiers-and combined their forces against Muslims in Maglaj, Zavidovici and Zepce.

_B_Disastrous blow:_b_The idea is to finish off Bosnia. Under siege by Serbian artillery for more than a month, Maglaj is a key prize. If captured, it would isolate the Tuzla pocket, home to more Muslims than Sarajevo. But first, Zepce, to the south, had to be taken: the town controls a critical junction with access to Maglaj. Last week Zepce fell to the Croats, who were backed by at least seven Serbian tanks, driving some 10,000 Muslim civilians south to Zenica, which is already swollen with 200,000 people, up to 50,000 of them refugees. To the northwest of Maglaj, Muslims defending the town of Tesanj were making a last stand against a furious Serbian-Croatian assault. "If Maglaj falls, 100,000 people could have to flee south," explains a U.N. official.

They are unlikely to find a welcome in Sarajevo, where U.N. food deliveries will soon be cut by at least 20 percent. Part of the problem is a shortage of funds by donor nations. But security is also more hazardous. In the latest display of connivance, Serbs have turned back U.N. relief caravans by demanding "road-repair tolls" of up to $750 per vehicle; Croats are trying to extort $20 million for the sort of 800-truck U.N. convoy sent recently to Tuzla.

The newfound Croat-Serb friendship is merely expedient. "It's a Molotov-Ribbentrop pact-with the Muslims in the role of Poland," says a U.S. official in the region. Bosnia's final humiliation is only a temporary distraction in a longstanding feud between Belgrade and Zagreb. Serbs still occupy 30 percent of Croatia, including the gateway to the Dalmatian coast, and clashed with Croatian forces in January. When they have disposed of Bosnia, Serbs and Croats will be hard pressed to resist the pull of their decades-old feud.