Ashdown says Sarajevo needs peace before aid

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STARVING REFUGEES in Sarajevo want peace rather than aid for Christmas, Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said yesterday when he called on Britain to support US plans for tougher action against Bosnian Serbs.

Mr Ashdown has sent a confidential report to John Major calling for a gradual escalation of action against the Serbs, with the imposition of a 'no-fly zone' and attacks on any units firing on British and other UN forces.

'You go and ask anybody there including the people delivering aid and say, 'What do you want - aid? Is that what you really want for Christmas?' And they will say, 'No - we want peace for Christmas'.

'They would rather have two or three weeks of some difficulty in order to get peace,' Mr Ashdown told a Westminster press conference on his return from the front line.

The Liberal Democrat leader returned with a grim account of Sarajevo. There were no reserves and, in spite of warnings, typhus was now a severe danger.

Hospitals had no blood or antibiotics, and no general anaesthetics in spite of the horrific injuries.

'The population has gone down heavily since I saw them last. They are grey, dispirited - there is a spirit but it's been ebbing away like watching a body in the process of dying.

'In some of the outlying suburbs which are literally piles of rubble, people are living like rats in cellars and amongst the rubble. One said to me, 'We have returned overnight to the Middle Ages'.

'The donor nations to UNHCR have not given Sarajevo what it needs. They have given what they don't want. Some families who spend their days inside their houses are provided with a sack of flour - 1cwt of flour - it's not much use when you haven't got any water or heat to cook it on.

'What we are doing is unloading our agricultural surpluses on Sarajevo instead of giving the city what it needs.'

He backed the tougher line advocated by Lawrence Eagleburger, the US Secretary of State, rather than the more cautious approach by the Prime Minister and Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, who have warned against action which could threaten the convoys of food and aid.

Mr Ashdown said the alliance forces in the area, led by the United States with its carrier aircraft, would be able to drop air supplies to the beseiged towns and cities until the Serbs were forced by international efforts to accept a peace deal.