UN troops snatched as human shield

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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

The United Nations peace-keeping operation in eastern Bosnia crashed into disarray yesterday as Muslim-led government forces in the enclaves of Zepa and Gorazde disarmed UN troops and threatened to use them as human shields against Bosnian Serb attacks. The beleaguered Muslim-led forces adopted their drastic new tactics as Britain, France and the United States wrestled with the problem of whether to strengthen the UN presence in Bosnia or pull out the peace-keepers altogether.

The United States is proposing a third option: air strikes to destroy Bosnian Serb anti-aircraft systems and to hit a wide range of Bosnian Serb targets as a condition for any US commitment to help the British and French forces.

John Major yesterday reaffirmed Britain's strong preference for maintaining the daily "more hazardous and more dangerous" UN presence in Bosnia. But he acknowledged that " it is possible" that events are "heading" in the direction of withdrawal and lifting the UN arms embargo on the Bosnians.

In some of the gravest language he has yet used in the Commons, the Prime Minister repeated that withdrawal and an end to the embargo would be a "course that we would regret and a course that the Bosnians would come to regret as well".

In Gorazde, where about 300 British and 90 Ukrainian troops are based, Bosnian government soldiers stripped arms and equipment from the Ukrainians and assaulted their company commander, holding a gun to his head. "All the Ukrainian troops were lined up in a corridor, and all their weapons and body armour were removed. [Bosnian] soldiers removed all weapons, ammunition, radio equipment, medical kits, personal belongings and all the soldiers' money. Armoured personnel carriers belonging to the Ukrainian peace-keepers were towed away by truck," said a UN spokesman, Alexander Ivanko.

In Zepa, where 79 Ukrainians are stationed, Muslim soldiers surrounded the peace-keepers' base and said they would use them as human shields unless Nato launched air attacks on the Bosnian Serbs. Western governments privately regard Zepa, a UN-designated "safe area", as all but indefensible, and the Ukrainian forces have already destroyed some of their equipment to prevent it falling into Bosnian government hands.

The Bosnian Serbs mounted a separate challenge to the UN. Serb forces surrounded eight Ukrainian peace-keepers at an observation post south of Zepa and threatened to kill them if Nato attacked from the air.

There was no word on whether the British forces in Gorazde, from the Royal Welch Fusiliers regiment, were under as much pressure as the Ukrainians. They are due to end their tour of duty in Gorazde in September, and the Government has reacted coolly to French proposals to toughen the UN presence there. Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, said that Britain and France had agreed not to assume a "war-fighting role" in Bosnia. He did not clarify whether this ruled out a more robust UN defence of Gorazde. The Government's preference is to consolidate the UN operation around Sarajevo and central Bosnia and to do nothing that would risk a wider Balkan conflagration.