Aid route dilemma for UN in Bosnia

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The Independent Online
A STARK choice is being forced upon the United Nations in Bosnia: to increase its forces and firepower to secure an aid supply route into central Bosnia, or to pull out. The UN's dilemma came with the destruction last week by local forces, probably Croats, of the three remaining spans of the Bijela bridge, which carries the Mostar road - the only all-weather supply route to Sarajevo.

The approach of winter, the lack of an imminent political solution and the ability of local militias to attack the aid route with impunity will force the UN to beef up Operation Lifeline if it is to help 2 million people in central Bosnia - thousands of whom are likely to die without UN aid. The European Union, Nato and UN staff in Bosnia are due to hold meetings this week to determine how - and whether - to establish safe aid routes protected by UN troops and planes.

The demolition of the remaining three of the five spans of the Bijela bridge, 15km north-west of Mostar, last week has caused UN planners great anxiety. The local forces have shown they are both willing and able to destroy the physical structure of the vital route whenever they please; unless the UN takes control of it, with units guarding the key vulnerable points - two bridges and 14 tunnels - the road will remain at risk. It has been estimated that securing the road might require an extra 2,000 troops.

Troops from the Royal Engineers were due this week to put a compact bridge over two spans of the Bijela bridge destroyed last year - a task complicated by the latest explosion. There is obviously no point in rebuilding the bridge to provide bombing practice for hostile locals. The skilled demolition of the Bijela bridge demonstrates that local forces - probably from the Croatian HVO - do not want the Mostar road open and carrying supplies to Sarajevo and beyond, and are prepared to prove that to the UN in a spectacular way.

The only alternative supply route, the mountain road, is closed by fighting at the moment; bad weather is likely to keep it closed. Therefore, the UN's only option, if it is to deliver humanitarian supplies, is to post troops along the Mostar road with orders to guard it and, if necessary, to defend it. However, UN planners hope that a show of force would be enough to deter local forces, who have not, until now, attacked UN positions.

The British UN force has moved its 'centre of gravity' back into central-southern Bosnia which facilitates re-supply and could facilitate withdrawal, though few consider that likely. The Nordic battalion, which has taken over from the British in the Tuzla area, has brought in Leopard tanks, the first time that any UN force has deployed main battle tanks in Bosnia.

In Vares, central Bosnia, three Swedish peace-keepers abducted by Serb gunmen were released unharmed yesterday and their commander said they had been lured into a trap.

Colonel Bernt Berlin, deputy commander of the Nordic peace- keeping battalion in Bosnia, said his men had tried to negotiate the release of up to 600 Croat refugees rumoured to be trapped in the village of Dastansko. 'It was a trick to get our units in the area,' he said.

Colonel Berlin said Serb extremists were responsible for the abduction. He offered no motive for the act, but they were freed after a tense stand-off lasting several hours.

(Photograph omitted)