400,000 at risk in Bosnia famine: The West woke up too late to warnings about the Yugoslav conflict. Unless it acts now a catastrophe this winter cannot be averted. Steve Crawshaw reports

The language is cool and scientific. But the conclusions are devastating none the less. Death by starvation in Bosnia-Herzegovina is likely, on a grand scale, unless action is taken now. The population of Sarajevo has been receiving about one-sixth of the food it needs.

Children will be 'profoundly wasted' within a month, unless they receive more. Adults will survive a little longer, into December. The people of Sarajevo need 240 tons of food daily. Last month they received between 40 and 43 tons each day. There are virtually no stocks of food in the warehouses of the city. The devastating consequences of the war in Bosnia are spelled out in a report by Philip James, a leading authority on nutrition commissioned by the World Health Organisation.

'Siege experience suggests an escalating mortality within two weeks of the onset of starvation symptoms, and signs such as leg swelling around Christmas time,' he says. The 'profound wasting' of adolescents and adults will, the report says, be 'progressive and devastating' over the six-month winter period.

In the words of Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees: 'The international community must act now if disaster is to be averted this winter. Time is short and thousands of lives, innocent victims of this senseless war, are at stake.'

Jose Maria Mendiluce, until recently the UNHCR's special envoy to Yugoslavia, says: 'A steadily increasing number are without any form of shelter . . . Unable to flee, between 300,000 and 400,000 people may die where they are.'

Such figures are difficult to comprehend, because of their enormity. But what the UNHCR is saying is this: six times as many people are likely to die in Bosnia this winter as the number of British civilians who died during the Second World War. Put another way, 400,000 is considerably more than the British combined military and civilian losses throughout the world during those six years.

Even on the eve of such a catastrophe, there is too little government support to carry out the tasks already agreed. The UNHCR points out that it has not received the necessary lorries, drivers and other equipment needed for its proposed winter emergency programme: there is a shortfall of about dollars 100m ( pounds 59m) on the contributions. Britain has contributed dollars 5m so far. Sweden, France and the Netherlands have contributed twice as much, Japan three times as much, and the United States six times as much. Germany has contributed less. But Germany has also taken in more than 200,000 refugees - a hundred times more than Britain has allowed in. (British officials have a wide range of arguments to explain why the UK has kept the door more or less locked. Aid organisations remain unconvinced by official British eloquence.)

In recent months, the West has been inclined to disbelieve the stories and warnings that have come out of Bosnia: detention camps, 'ethnic cleansing', brutal killings of civilians, mass starvation. Sometimes, that scepticism has been justified. Trying to find truth in the former Yugoslavia is a difficult task, and there are plenty of people who are ready to lie - sometimes, almost without being aware that they are doing so.

Equally, however, the West has been embarrassed to find that many of the most horrific allegations and warnings have proved accurate. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, former Polish prime minister and the UN special envoy to Bosnia to investigate human rights abuses, has expressed his frustration at the slowness of the West to react.

Yesterday, the RAF made its first relief flight into Sarajevo since the shooting down of an Italian aircraft last month. A Hercules transport completed the run without incident.

SARAJEVO - A mortar bomb killed three children and wounded 13 others when it blasted an orphanage in Sarajevo yesterday, Bosnian television said, Reuter reports.

Nineteen people died and 34 were wounded when Serbian warplanes attacked the north-east Bosnian town of Gradacac, flouting a UN ban on military flights over Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatian radio reported.

(Photograph omitted)