Despairing West gets ready to leave Bosnia: As UN aid effort runs into the ground, European leaders start to talk of pulling out troops, lifting arms embargo and letting the war rage on

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The Independent Online
THE END of the UN-sponsored international relief effort in the former Yugoslavia appears nigh. A senior spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in one of agency's most despondent statements, yesterday said circumstances have converged in such away as to make the UN's job in Bosnia 'impossible'.

The first indication that the West may be contemplating pulling out of Bosnia was made at the G7 summit in Tokyo yesterday where Britain and France conceded that they might have to adopt 'a policy of despair' and agree to calls by the US to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia, leaving Serbs, Muslims and Croats to 'fight it out until kingdom come'.

'We are on the verge of disaster, of collapse,' Ron Redmond said from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva. 'The escalation in fighting, the escalation of attacks on relief convoys, the decline in international financing for our effort, a gap in the food pipeline until mid-September, all this combined with no political breakthrough on the horizon and the international community tightening its restrictions on the entry of people fleeing the fighting spells disaster for the relief operation.'

The humanitarian effort has been the cornerstone of the West's policy in Bosnia. Europe, led by Britain and France, has consistently rejected military intervention or arming the Bosnian government forces, arguing that these moves would endanger the relief operation.

But in recent weeks UN officials in the former Yugoslavia have grown increasingly alarmed, voicing concern that the system of providing food and medical care to at least 700,000 people in central and eastern Bosnia was breaking down.

In the Muslim enclave of Tuzla, the civilian population has made desperate attempts to rob a UNHCR food depot in recent days as supplies elsewhere have dwindled. In Sarajevo food supplies are expected to run out in coming days. Aid groups warned yesterday that Sarajevo, already lacking water and electricity, was on the 'brink of disaster'.

The World Health Organisation reported yesterday that health services in Sarajevo were on the verge of collapse and warned of an impending catastrophe. Thousands of people may die of hepatitis, typhoid fever and dysentery, spread among the city's 300,000 inhabitants by open sewers. WHO staff have reported that people are turning to untreated sewage pipes for drinking water.

Tony Land, chief of Bosnian operations for the UNHCR, told US journalists on Wednesday: 'We've come to a point where unless there is a major political change we do not have the space to do our job. There is no humanitarian action that can solve these problems.'

Publicly, UN and Western officials are determined that supplies must continue to travel along the perilous roads through the war zone, but in Tokyo yesterday the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, said he could envisage a situation where the arms embargo on Bosnia was lifted.

'If the UN effort collapsed, if it was simply not possible to go on keeping people alive, if our forces and other forces were withdrawn, if all negotiations came to an end, then it might be a situation in which the friends of each side said: 'Here's the kit. Fight it out,' ' Mr Hurd said.

Lifting the embargo would create what Mr Hurd has described as 'a level killing field', but he admitted that the situation was increasingly difficult and chaotic.

Alain Juppe, the French Foreign Minister, said even if lifting the embargo amounted to a policy of despair, 'we must not exclude it . . . It is obvious that if the peace talks in Geneva fail, it would be hard to resist those who regularly propose lifting the embargo at the UN. We have two more months at Geneva if we don't want to look ridiculous.'

Some analysts said that both the British and French statements had to be seen as Europe preparing the ground for a UN withdrawal.

'Sometime in the next six weeks when the situation gets so bad and they get nervous of getting in deeper, they will say: 'We have done all that we can, so lift the embargo, we are leaving,' ' said James Gow, a research associate at the Centre for Defence Studies in London.

SARAJEVO - President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia indicated yesterday he might accept the three-way partition of the country if the alternative was war without end, Reuter reports. He told Bosnian radio: 'Bosnia is not going to commit suicide. We have to say clearly if it's going to be division it's going to be ethnic division, unfortunately. It's acceptable to us only if we are forced. The other option is war without end.'

Serbs and Croats unite, page 13