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TALKING STILL BEST HOPE FOR BOSNIA

As artillery and planes - led by mostly U.S. aircraft - hammered Bosnia Serb positions this week in the biggest military strike in NATO's history, the ultimate emphasis must still be on a negotiated solution.

There is no way that the Serbs can be defeated militarily without committing large numbers of ground troops, something none of the Western countries are willing to do. But the massive air strikes may finally jar the Serbs out of their recalcitrance and back to the bargaining table.For several years, the West has grappled with frustration as Bosnian Serbs have seized much of the country, repeatedly bombarded Sarajevo, pushed around United Nations peacekeepers and generally dragged their feet in working out an acceptable diplomatic settlement.

A horrifying Serb mortar attack that killed 37 people in a Sarajevo marketplace earlier this week was finally seen by U.N. and NATO officials as a provocation that had to be answered if the West was to retain any semblance of an already tattered credibility.

NATO air forces have carried out a dozen previous raids in response to Serb attacks, mostly to help protect U.N. troops or U.N.-operated "safe areas." But most of those raids involved a single strike by a handful of planes, sometimes as few as two aircraft.

By contrast, this week's assault involved wave after wave of as many as 60 planes, as well as the use of artillery near Sarajevo. The planes repeatedly struck Serb anti-aircraft missile sites, ammunition and fuel dumps, command centers, artillery installations and tank positions. First reports indicated heavy damage. NATO officials said the attacks might last for several days.

Of course, there is a cost to the attackers as well. While NATO aircraft appear to dominate the skies, a French plane was shot down, although the two crew members were seen to parachute free.

It is still an open question as to whether the Serbs will be more willing to negotiate after the shooting has died down and the smoke cleared. If they prove to be as obstinate as in the past, the only other option will be to withdraw U.N. forces and provide Western military aid to the Muslim-led Bosnian government so it can at least defend itself.

For the sake of all parties, the negotiating table still offers the best alternative to a long and even more miserable war.