Torment of Bosnia's fleeing civilians

Biggest 'ethnic cleansing' operation of war begins
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The Independent Online
Bosnian Serb forces last night began one of the biggest ethnic cleansing operations of the 39-month war by expelling thousands of terrified and exhausted Muslim civilians from the fallen enclave of Srebrenica. As the Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic, rode into the town at the head of his army, Serb units ferriedMuslims out of Srebrenica and left them to walk across no man's land into Bosnian government-held territory.

Making no attempt to hide their intentions, the Bosnian Serbs told aid workers that all male Muslims over 16 would be screened for "possible war criminals" at Bratunac, a town near Srebrenica, before being transferred into Bosnian government hands. The openness of the Bosnian Serb operation, in blatant defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, underlined their contempt for the UN mission in Bosnia and the UN's weakness on the ground.

In a new resolution yesterday, the Security Council demanded that Bosnian Serb forces withdraw immediately from Srebrenica. It also unanimously condemned the offensive and demanded both the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian government fully respect the status of the "safe area".

The new British Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, condemned the Bosnian Serbs' actions but withheld support from a French proposal to re-establish the Srebrenica enclave by military force. "One of the great mistakes of the last three years has been for the United Nations, Nato and individual governments to use a rhetoric which implies a capability which has never been provided," Mr Rifkind told the Commons.

As he faced growing Conservative calls for the withdrawal of British troops, the Foreign Secretary assured the Commons that the rapid reaction force would not be drawn into a full-scale war. It did not have the capability to be a "war fighting machine", he said.

The United States said it was at least willing to discuss the French proposal, but other Western countries tended to support the British line, as did the special UN envoy, Yasushi Akashi. But France continued to argue that passive Western acceptance of the fall of Srebrenica would have disastrous consequences. "We cannot leave Srebrenica with our tails between our legs," said Alain Juppe, the Prime Minister.

Standing with Mr Rifkind, the European Union's mediator, Carl Bildt, said the major powers had a "moral duty" to keep searching for a peaceful solution to Europe's worst conflict since the Second World War. "I don't think you can ever give up on the efforts to achieve a negotiated political settlement because at the end of the day it has to be sorted out," he said. "There aren't any military solutions."

While Western politicians openly wondered whether the enclave's collapse might spell the end of the UN mission, the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, said he might ask the UN to leave when its mandate expires in November. The Srebrenica crisis has also widened the rift between the US and Russia over Bosnia. Russia's lower house of parliament has voted to lift UN sanctions on Serbia.

But Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader, is preparing legislation to end US participation in the UN arms embargo on the Bosnian government.

Britain and France have made clear they will pull out from Bosnia if the arms embargo is lifted. Their preference is to regroup their forces in positions more defendable than Srebrenica and the two other Muslim pockets of eastern Bosnia, deploy their 10,000-strong Rapid Reaction Force, and ensure the survival of Sarajevo, the symbol of a sovereign, unpartitioned Bosnia. The Bosnian Serb intention in storming into Srebrenica was to take the enclave before the Rapid Reaction Force is fully deployed.

The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said: "Srebrenica is our country. It is simply a terrorist stronghold and we could not tolerate it any longer."

UN staff said yesterday that up to 30,000 Muslims had gathered around Potocari, the main Dutch-run UN base in Srebrenica. Soldiers were feeding refugees with their own rations.

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