Ashdown calls on UN to bolster forces in Bosnia

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THE UNITED NATIONS should double its commitment of forces in Bosnia with about 16,000 troops held in reserve to enforce safe havens for the Muslims under seige from the Serbs, Paddy Ashdown said yesterday after returning from the battle front.

The Liberal Democrat leader said a retreat by British and UN forces from Sarajevo would seriously damage the authority of the UN. He told the Independent that there should be an agreed escalation of UN measures. 'Apart from the horrific humanitarian price, retreat would put paid to the UN's authority and damage the whole concept of acting under the law . . . The costs of continued timidity are incalculable.'

He urged John Major to reject the threats by Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, against enforcing the no-fly zone. 'It was always assumed it would happen. But the Serbs are absolutely scared stiff of intervention. The crunch moment is arriving and the question that we have to face is whether we have the will to carry this through. The Serbs are now desperate for peace. That is not surprising when you have captured all the territory you wanted . . . The real threat now comes from the Muslims.'

Mr Ashdown said he was deeply worried about a Muslim counter-attack to relieve the seige of Sarajevo. 'There is a major Muslim attack forming up.'

French UN troops occupying the airport could be caught in cross-fire, and humanitarian aid could be brought to a halt. Another potential flashpoint was the threat of Croats turning on Muslims.

Mr Ashdown has returned to promote a clear plan of action by the UN. 'There is a clear humanitarian aim. But there is confusion about how far the UN mandate allows action to be taken,' he said.

Mr Ashdown said the political aim should be to establish an area where the Muslims could live in peace. The first step should be the establishment of the no-fly zone. 'You then say it is under the UN mandate and permission is required to fly in that airspace. We should let the Serbs know that if they seek permission, it will normally be granted, but if they flout the zone it will be enforced.

'We should make it clear that the international community is not prepared to allow Sarajevo to fall and that the UN, with all the force available, will protect its positions. You then need to position reserves to make that happen.'

Mr Ashdown said reserves of at least one regiment of troops and two regiments of artillery with heavy-lift helicopters and sufficient air cover would be needed. 'There are about 16,000 troops already in Bosnia. Maybe another 16,000 are needed including all the back-up troops.'

The UN High Commission for Refugees also needed to improve its supplies for Sarajevo, which was verging on starvation, with no reserves. It needed at least 250 tons a day for its 380,000 population but was getting on average 80 tons. Mr Ashdown said the old were already dying of malnutrition.

'I am absolutely furious about the sitation in Sarajevo . . . If because of the weather or the war, the supplies are cut off, Sarajevo will start to die tomorrow.'