UN throws a lifeline to Sarajevo: Plan to prevent mass starvation depends on Serb and Croat goodwill

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THE UN force commander in Bosnia yesterday launched 'Operation Lifeline' to open supply routes throughout Bosnia and prevent mass starvation among civilians this winter.

However the plan depends on an agreement by Bosnian Serb forces to withdraw from two strategic mountains overlooking Sarajevo. Talks on the withdrawal were held at Sarajevo airport yesterday between the Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, and the Bosnian Muslim Army chief, but they broke up without agreement.

The plan is bound to meet a sceptical, if not downright hostile response from Muslims. They believe 'Lifeline' was concocted by the UN in Sarajevo to stop Western air attacks on Serb heavy artillery positions around the city, just as an armed response against the Serbs seemed likely.

General Francis Briquemont, of Belgium, said the prospect of a second winter at war in Bosnia had 'laid at the feet of the UN a challenge to avert a humanitarian catastrophe of immense proportions and ensure the survival of more than 2 million people'.

The central plank of 'Lifeline' will be to open up for unrestricted use by UN forces a main road running from the port of Ploce on Croatia's Adriatic coast to Mostar in south-west Bosnia, through to Sarajevo and Tuzla in north-east Bosnia. A second route will run north-west from Sarajevo to Zenica in central Bosnia.

'The people of Bosnia have suffered one winter at war already and face a second winter with fewer resources,' said the UN chief. 'People are already getting only 50 per cent of the food they need to stay healthy.'

General Briquemont said the UN intended to turn the Ploce-Mostar-Sarajevo-Tuzla road into a 'special corridor' along which civilians will be able to travel freely, along with UN food and medical convoys.

At the talks yesterday, General Mladic was expected to respond to a plan put forward by the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, to withdraw Serb forces from Mount Igman and Mount Bjelasnica, on condition that UN peacekeepers take exclusive control of the two peaks.

The mountains, west of Sarajevo, were seized by Serbs in a recent offensive, triggering fears of a decisive assault on the Bosnian capital. As talks ended last night it appeared there was no agreement between the Serbs and the UN over control of the mountains. A UN spokesman said talks would resume over the weekend. Failure to withdraw is likely to increase pressure in the West for air strikes.

General Briquemont said Operation Lifeline will require more UN troops being deployed, including reconnaissance and engineering squadrons, to patrol the 'special corridor' and repair destroyed bridges along the way. ' 'Lifeline' is in the interest of all parties, is achievable with the resources we can expect and is an agreement that can be honoured.'

In spite of the optimistic fanfare, there is nothing new in the scheme. The UN produced no timetable for the opening up of the 'special corridor', and they did not suggest they are any more prepared to use force against the warring parties, to ensure that the aid gets through.

The plan will depend on Serbian and Croatian goodwill for its success, which is scarcely a sure foundation. 'Operation Lifeline sounds like operation loophole - for the UN and for the Serbs,' said Enver, a Bosnian Muslim soldier on his day off.

Operation 'Lifeline' follows the scheme described in the Independent over the past fortnight, writes Christopher Bellamy.

The UN would control the route up which civilians, food and medicine would move from the main UN depot at Metkovic on the Croatian-Bosnian border to Sarajevo.

Along most of its length the route runs through Croat and then Muslim territory, entering Serb territory just short of Sarajevo. The corridor would continue through Serb and then Muslim territory as far as Zenica.

Military sources advising the Independent agree that the extra troops should comprise mechanised infantry - similar to the British UN forces deployed - engineers and air support. The Royal Engineers assess the route is in good condition. The main obstacle is a 77 metre gap in the Bijelo bridge north of Mostar which would need to be repaired. A second route - currently the UN's main route - would be maintained through Gornji Vakuf and Vitez to the north west.

A British soldier was shot and wounded by Croats while on patrol in central Bosnia yesterday. He was hit between five and ten times in the chest while travelling on a Warrior armoured vehicle in Gornji Vakuf. His condition was described as 'serious but stable'.