Serbs humiliate UN in 'safe area'

Peace-keepers are forced to flee Srebrenica
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Defence Correspondent

The United Nations suffered its worst humiliation in the three years of the Bosnian conflict yesterday when the Bosnian Serbs bulldozed their way into the Muslim "safe area"of Srebrenica.

Dutch UN peace-keepers and thousands of Muslim refugees were forced to flee as the Serbs overran the town, shrugging off two Nato air attacks. Srebrenica's new masters appointed one of their own as mayor last night, and a second "safe area", the nearby town of Zepa, was reported to be on the point of yielding to them.

The fall of one of the enclaves which the UN had vowed to defend has once again placed the world body's future in Bosnia in doubt. "When they are attacked by military forces, this obviously prejudices their ability to carry out [their] humanitarian mission," said William Perry, the US Defense Secretary.

The speed and determination of the attack by between 1,000 and 1,500 Serbs stunned the UN, which had been trying to defend a "safe area" for the first time. Previously, it had insisted it would not fight the local factions' war for them.

"One hoped they'd back off, confronted by resistance from the UN, but the thin blue or white line was not enough," said the UN spokesman in Sarajevo, Lieutenant-Colonel Gary Coward. "We assess that 1,000 to 1,500 Bosnian Serb troops have now moved into and around the town of Srebrenica. They have control of the town." He said there were 20,000 refugees at Potocari, about a mile from Srebrenica, where the Dutch have their base, and about 7,000 on the road. "The Dutch battalion at Potocari is inundated with refugees," he added.

The relief organisation Medecins sans Frontieres said Srebrenica, which had been home to 30,000 people, was "completely empty". "It is a massive exodus," a spokesman said.

Lt-Col Coward said the UN was trying to contact the authorities in the Bosnian Serb capital of Pale to negotiate a local ceasefire, "and to give what aid and succour we can". About 70 local people had been wounded, he said.

A small UN force with seven armoured personnel carriers and about 60 men took position on the road south of Srebrenica to block the Serbs, whose attack began on Sunday.

On Monday night, a fierce fire-fight erupted between the Bosnian Serbs and the Dutch peace-keepers, and resumed yesterday morning. Nato warplanes were called in by the French Brigadier-General, Herve Gobillard, acting UN commander in General Rupert Smith's absence, and two Serb tanks just behind the front line were destroyed.

By that time, however, the Dutch peace-keepers, overwhelmed by the weight and speed of the Serb advance, had pulled out. UN sources said they ran the risk of being outflanked, and had to withdraw to Potocari. Several peace-keepers were wounded during yesterday's action, but the UN said it did not believe any had been killed.

President Jacques Chirac said France was prepared to intervene military to "restore the integrity of the Srebrenica zone" if the UN Security Council asked the Franco-British Rapid Reaction Force to do so, but senior Government sources in London appeared to rule this out. "That was Chirac speaking from the French point of view," said one. "I don't think there is much feasibility in that from our view."

The Security Council, meeting in emergency session in New York last night, was debating a resolution condemning the invasion and demanding the immediate withdrawal of the Serb troops from Srebrenica.

The text, prepared principally by Britain, France and Germany, was also expected to authorise the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to use whatever means necessary, possibly including military force, to restore Srebrenica as a safe area. Some hesitation by Russia, however, made it unlikely that the resolution would be adopted until later today.

"The objective is the return of the status quo ante," said a US diplomat. "Exactly how it would be done would not be addressed by the resolution."

Michael Portillo, the Defence Secretary, and Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, held an emergency meeting with military chiefs last night. In the Commons earlier, John Major warned MPs in the most grave terms so far that British troops would be withdrawn if the fighting worsened. The Prime Minister's office insisted there had been no hardening of policy in favour of a pull-out, but there was increasing backbench pressure for withdrawal.

The fall of Srebrenica was hastily added to the agenda of yesterday's Franco-German summit in Strasbourg, but afterwards Mr Chirac insisted the question of withdrawal was not "a matter for today". If, however, the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims were lifted, then France would insist on "an immediate withdrawal".