A call to save Sarajevo: Secure Mostar road into central Bosnia - Deploy 18,000 UN troops - Use force if necessary

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LIKE A treacherous snake, the main road from Croatia's southern Adriatic coast twists, turns and curls for 100 miles until it thrusts into Sarajevo. It is a dangerous road - pitted with mines, dotted with checkpoints and often enveloped in gunfire. But it is also a road of hope and life. If a convoy of lorries carrying food and medicine gets through, then the people of Sarajevo - and many others in central Bosnia - live to see another day. If the convoy is blocked, then someone dies or is drawn closer to death.

This road, which passes through the city of Mostar, has been closed for the past two and a half months. But officers and soldiers who serve with the United Nations forces in Bosnia believe that, with a moderate increase in their numbers, the road could be secured. Some say that two extra battalions, or 1,800 troops, would suffice to ensure that convoys deliver humanitarian aid regularly to the besieged Bosnian capital. The snag is that Western governments have yet to summon the will for an operation that may mean shooting the nationalist brigands and cynical gunmen who throttle the supply route.

'We have the albatross of bowing and scraping to warlords around our necks. The only way to change that is to act decisively and bring in a new infusion of forces with a clear mandate,' said Mark Wheeler, of the London School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies.

With the Mostar road closed, UN relief convoys are using a much more circuitous route. It winds from the coast to Vitez in central Bosnia, and then descends into Sarajevo through Kakanj and Kiseljak. So far the route has operated relatively well. However, it cannot meet the need of Sarajevo and central Bosnia, where more than 2 million people depend on international aid.

'Unless that road from Mostar is opened, there will be death and suffering in Bosnia because we cannot supply enough food over the mountain road,' said a senior official working for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 'You can lift the siege of Sarajevo. People could walk around the streets and queue without fear for bread and water.'

Since the UN began its relief operation, about 40 per cent of Sarajevo's emergency supplies has arrived by road from the coast. The rest has come by air into Sarajevo airport. In theory, more aid flights could meet Sarajevo's minimum needs. But sometimes the fighting has been so intense that UN forces have closed the airport. That is why the Mostar road assumes a life-or-death importance.

Soldiers with the British UN contingent in Bosnia say there are several obstacles to opening it but none is insurmountable. At various points along the road, Bosnian Muslim, Croatian and Serbian forces exert some form of control. There are checkpoints, blown-up bridges and, in a stretch between Tarcin and Kresevo, mines.

But the biggest obstacle is the fighting between Muslim and Croatian forces, former allies now engaged in a savage struggle for territory. The Croats regard aid convoys as a form of material assistance to the Muslims.

In recent days, the Croats have blocked almost all UN attempts to deliver aid to Sarajevo and central Bosnia. Only 38 per cent of the UNHCR's intended 32,000-ton food allotment for central Bosnia has arrived this month. Serbian forces besieging Sarajevo and other Muslim enclaves such as Gorazde in eastern Bosnia have emulated the Croats, even inciting crowds of women to swarm over roads and stop relief teams.

Military experts and Balkan specialists agree that such obstruction cannot be stopped without the use of force, or the credible threat of force. 'You can't save Sarajevo by waving a magic wand. Nothing makes sense unless it has a gun barrel behind it,' said James Gow, of the Centre of Defence Studies at King's College, London. 'You're not going to be able to talk your way in any more. But if you were willing to use force, you'd get pretty much what you want.'

General Bob Gaudreau, a former deputy UN commander for Yugoslavia, said: 'The one key principle of peace-keeping is that you need a clear objective, but what we have is some 24 separate UN resolutions dealing with Yugoslavia.'

No Western government proposes to send in tens of thousands of troops to determine the war's outcome. But to secure the aid route into central Bosnia is a different matter. It would develop the idea that the UN should protect six Muslim 'safe areas' in Bosnia - Sarajevo, Bihac, Tuzla, Gorazde, Srebrenica and Zepa.

Military sources said the Spanish UN forces responsible for the Mostar road could, if supported by other troops, provide patrols to defend aid convoys. Extra soldiers would have to secure the road's 14 tunnels, the Bijela bridge (when repaired), Mostar, Jablanica, and a passage through Serbian lines into Sarajevo. In total, the sources said, about 1,800 extra troops could do the job.

The Bosnian Foreign Minister, Haris Silajdzic, said: 'Two hundred thousand people killed, 2 million uprooted, children maimed, rape camps: it all seems to have been forgotten already. That is the tragedy - the indifference of those who could do something about it.'

Additional reporting: Robert Block, Christopher Bellamy

(Maps omitted)