Serb attacks pile on the misery

Assault on second 'safe area' challenges the West as humanitarian disaster grows
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The Independent Online
Bosnian Serb forces last night swept into the eastern Muslim enclave of Zepa, threatening a second humanitarian disaster in three days and challenging Western governments to fight back or suffer permanent damage to their world reputation.

The credibility of the United Nations operation in Bosnia was strained to the limit as the Bosnian Serb army targeted UN observation posts in Zepa and then, ignoring Nato planes overhead, pushed forward in a drive to capture the entire UN-declared "safe area". The Serbs also fired on a UN convoy taking the risky Mount Igman aid route into Sarajevo, destroying one truck. French peace-keepers shot back.

About 16,000 civilians are crammed into Zepa which, apart from Gorazde, was the only surviving Muslim pocket in eastern Bosnia after the fall of Srebrenica on Tuesday. Thousands of Srebrenica's 40,000 inhabitants are still missing after the Bosnian Serbs separated men of fighting age from women and children and herded them into a Serb-run zone to interrogate them about alleged war crimes.

In the northern Bosnian town of Tuzla, aid workers were overwhelmed in their efforts to deal with thousands of refugees driven out of Srebrenica. A symbol of their despair was the sight of a young woman who had gone into the woods overnight and hanged herself with a blanket.

An estimated 17,000 refugees from Srebrenica, nearly all women and children, arrived in Tuzla yesterday, and another 15,000 are expected today. Most of the newcomers were in shock, with weeping women and screaming children spilling out into maize fields surrounding the UN-controlled air base at Tuzla. The refugee camp inside the base was foul with faeces.

The women and children from Srebrenica had been taken in buses from the homes their menfolk had defended for three years. After being brutally parted from their men, they were made to walk about six miles across the front lines before being taken by bus again to camps ill-prepared to receive them. Some male Muslim fighters escaped into the woods before the Serbs overran Srebrenica on Tuesday, but thousands of men and teenage boys were whisked away and have not been heard from since.

"Probably the Bosnian Serb army will go down in the history books, not only as the perpetrators of some of the most gross violations of human rights and some of the worst ethnic cleansing seen in this century, but also as the fastest perpetrators of this ethnic cleansing," said a UN spokesman, Alexander Ivanko.

The Bosnian Serbs' offensive on Zepa, though anticipated by Western intelligence agencies, was an act of contemptuous defiance towards President Jacques Chirac of France, who only hours earlier had appealed to Britain and the United States for concerted action to protect the remaining UN "safe areas" in Bosnia. Speaking on Bastille Day, he said the West's reaction to the fall of Srebrenica was, "keeping things in proportion, a bit like the talks that Chamberlain and Daladier held" with Hitler at Munich in 1938.

Mr Chirac said France wanted the support of its allies in reinforcing the Gorazde enclave, where British UN troops are surrounded by Serb forces, and in opening a land route for aid supplies to ease the siege of Sarajevo.

Hinting at an eventual French withdrawal from Bosnia, Mr Chirac said: "Of course, if we want to do strictly nothing, I do not see why UN forces should be accomplices to this barbarism, to these acts of ethnic cleansing, and in that case their presence would be in question." In a 30-minute telephone conversation with Mr Chirac, John Major last night secured French agreement to an emergency meeting of the big powers in London on Friday, to be chaired by Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary. Michael Portillo, the Defence Secretary, flies to Bosnia this weekend.

In a statement that made no mention of Paris's thinly veiled criticism of Britain and other allies for not backing its call for military action to roll back the Serb advances, the Prime Minister described Bosnian Serb behaviour against the civilians in Srebrenica as "outrageous". He said the meeting on Friday would comprise foreign and defence ministers of the Contact Group countries - Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the US - along with other countries "loosely involved in the international effort".

British officials went out of their way to emphasise that, while they shared French concern over the fall of Srebrenica and the threat to Zepa, the allies needed to formulate a coherent military policy - not least to ensure the continued protection of Goradze. British defence chiefs are to meet their allied counterparts in London tomorrow night.

Mr Major said the crisis was "yet more acute" and added that he hoped the initiative would ensure that "the international community would be able to redirect efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement, and to ensure conditions in which Unprofor and humanitarian aid can continue until those efforts succeed".

Earlier Mr Portillo had emphasised: "We're not in Bosnia to fight a war. We're there to save lives. We're there to stand between the sides for as long as that is a tenable thing to do."

President Bill Clinton has said he wants the UN to stay in Bosnia but that its days could be numbered if it fails to act effectively. European governments fear a UN withdrawal could lead to more intense wars in Bosnia and Croatia and possibly further south, while the West as a whole fears that a withdrawal could irrevocably damage the UN and the US-European alliance.

Muslims' flight, pages 8, 10 Leading article, page 16