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For nearly three weeks the Serbs avoided testing the nato ultimatum, but meanwhile several developments had altered the situation in the war zone. First, in a stunning five-day blitz, the Croatian army retook Krajina, a breakaway region that for three years had been controlled by rebel Serbs. This offensive dramatically illustrated a new balance of power. "For the first time since 1991 somebody else other than Bosnian Serbs was gaining territory," said a senior State Department official. Second, the U.N. peacekeepers were redeployed to less vulnerable positions. For years the French and the British had objected to the use of force because it would place their peacekeepers on the ground in danger (the U.S. has no peacekeepers in Bosnia). With the peacekeepers now better protected, force was much more palatable.
And then last Monday the Serbs' shell landed in Sarajevo . Riding to work that morning, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who was running the State Department while Christopher was vacationing, heard the first radio report of the shelling. Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Secretary of Defense William Perry and General John Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were also on vacation; Washington was being run by deputies. While the President monitored events from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Talbott convened an 8 a.m. meeting in his office, certain that what he faced was "a test of the London rules," according to a senior aide.
Talbott then placed a call to Holbrooke, who had been dispatched to the Balkans on Aug. 14 to promote a new peace initiative the Americans were pursuing. Hol brooke was in Paris preparing to embark for Belgrade to meet with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Talking on their secure line, Talbott and Holbrooke concluded that the U.S.plan would have no credibility if Washington stood by and allowed the shelling to go unpunished. Talbott then telephoned the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo requesting confirmation that the mortar attack had come from the Bosnian Serbs. By 1 p.m. Washington time the embassy had reported back: it appeared certain that Bosnian Serbs were responsible.
By Tuesday morning, consensus for a retaliatory attack had formed among the nato allies. But U.S. officials knew they faced a major difficulty. What about Holbrooke and his diplomatic team, which was getting ready to lobby Milosevic? If NATO launched air strikes, would Milosevic, the Serb strongman, react with anger and dismiss Holbrooke's overture? After conferring on the phone, Talbott and Christopher decided that the air campaign could cripple the diplomatic initiative, but that Washington had no choice. "Diplomacy was dead without the force," said a State Department official. By 7 p.m. Washington time, the first warplanes were launched in the direction of Bosnia.
When Holbrooke landed in Belgrade on Wednesday, the bombs had already been dropping for nine hours, and he had no idea whether Milosevic would even agree to see him. Back in Washington, Talbott and his aides were also worrying about how Holbrooke would be received. At 7:30 a.m. Washington time, they were intently watching cnn. When cameras showed Milosevic smiling and shaking hands with Holbrooke on his arrival, they slumped back in their chairs relieved. "He's smiling! Milosevic is smiling!" one exclaimed.