Bosnians blame UN for Pope crying off

IN SORROW and in anger, Sarajevans - including President Alija Izetbegovic - yesterday blamed the United Nations and the Bosnian Serbs for the Pope's decision to postpone a visit to the city, planned for today.

In a fierce attack, Mr Izetbegovic accused the UN Special Envoy, Yasushi Akashi, of sabotaging the trip, in a letter sent to the Holy See on Monday. 'Of course the threats made by Karadzic's Serbs have caused the postponement of the visit, but it was godfathered by Unprofor (UN Protection Force) as well,' the Bosnian President said.

The UN denied the accusation, saying that Mr Akashi had expressed concern about the security situation in the besieged city. 'We never did make any recommendation. It would have been diplomatically impossible,' said Michael Williams, a UN spokesman. But, he added: 'Our opinion was that complete security was impossible.' Neither side released the Akashi letter, but, according to a source in the Bosnian presidency, the offending sentence read: 'In conclusion, we are pleased to offer assistance should His Holiness decide to proceed with his visit, but we are very concerned about the security risks.'

To the Bosnian government, and to many citizens, this was another example of the UN selling Bosnia short. 'As a Bosnian Catholic, I feel real pain in my heart over this,' Tomislav Sandrk said. 'It's a great shame for the world, this shows the UN's impotence and reveals how unwilling the international community is to confront Serb aggression.'

The bitterness stems from a widespread feeling that, after 29 months of war, the city has been left to its fate. Many felt the Pope's visit would have forced a solution. Claire Grimes, a UN spokeswoman in Sarajevo, attributed criticism of the UN to 'a general feeling of disappointment'.

The mood covers more than the papal cancellation. 'It's too bad the Pope did not arrive as he was coming for peace,' Dijana Cohodarevic-Tiric, a citizen of Sarajevo, said. 'If the heavy weapons have been withdrawn from around the city, as the UN says, why should they be worried about the Pope's safety?' There's the rub. The UN peace-keeping mission has been unable to enforce total compliance with the Nato ultimatum, banning heavy weapons from a 20km (12-mile) zone around the city. Sarajevo is a UN 'safe area', but in Bosnia 'safe' means 'less dangerous than before'. President Izetbegovic compained that compliance with the exclusion zone had been eroded over the past month.

On Tuesday 11 mortars were fired at an eastern suburb by Bosnian Serbs, a violation punishable by air strikes. Although such a reaction would probably have been counter-productive, the UN could have sent a jet to buzz the Serb positions. 'We were trying to calm the situation,' said Commander Eric Chaperon, a UN spokesman. 'I don't think air strikes the day before the Pope's arrival would be a very good thing.'

The mortars, UN officials said, were a signal from the Serbs to the Pope. The leadership in Pale refused to guarantee the Pope's safety, claiming the Bosnian government would shoot down his plane and blame the Serbs. A papal envoy who travelled to Pale failed to persuade Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, to change his mind. Mr Izetbegovic said he would have accompanied the Pope at every step. But it was not enough. 'It is hell here,' said one Bosnian. 'And I don't think a Pope would have much chance of surviving in hell.'