Bosnia to get UN aid after convoy success

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The Independent Online
BOSNIAN Serb forces caved in to international pressure yesterday and allowed a United Nations food convoy to reach the besieged Muslim village of Zepa in eastern Bosnia. The 10-truck convoy, carrying 70 tons of wheat flour and family parcels, arrived in Zepa after being held up for two days at a checkpoint in the nearby Serb- held town of Rogatica.

Hours later, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in Geneva that it would resume full operations in Bosnia after receiving assurances that the warring factions would no longer block aid convoys or distribution. The convoy's success was seen as vital in persuading the Bosnian government and Sarajevo city authorities to call off a boycott of UN aid to the Bosnian capital.

The US President, Bill Clinton, said that the United States was consulting other members of the UN Security Council and would probably make an announcement soon on getting more relief supplies to Bosnia. 'We'll probably have an announcement today for you or tomorrow,' Mr Clinton said at the White House.

For the tiny village of Zepa, whose population has been swollen by an influx of Muslim refugees, it was only the second time in more than 10 months of warfare that help has come from the outside world.

With tangible proof that the UN has succeeded in getting food across Serbian lines to Muslims in eastern Bosnia, the republic's President, Alija Izetbegovic, declared he would ask the authorities in Sarajevo to call off the boycott of UN aid, imposed to draw attention to the plight of Muslims in the east of the republic.

At the weekend, Mr Izetbegovic ordered a ceasefire on battlefronts around Sarajevo, after Serbian forces reportedly made gains on the western edge of the city.

More than 1,500 tons of food and medicine brought into the Bosnian capital by the UN has piled up at the airport and in warehouses in the city since the Sarajevo authorities began refusing to distribute aid.

The boycott was attacked by UN chiefs. The commander of UN peace-keepers in Bosnia, General Philippe Morillon, called it 'stupid'. But Bosnian leaders can take grim satisfaction from the row which their tactics caused. They succeeded in drawing world attention to the plight of up to 100,000 Muslims who are trapped in wretched conditions in enclaves in the east of the republic.

For the UNHCR, the convoy's arrival in Zepa was a much- needed breakthrough. The organisation has been wracked by damaging internal rows after the organisation's chief, Sadako Ogata, ordered humanitarian convoys to shut down in most parts of Bosnia last week, only for the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros- Ghali, to overrule the decision.

But the success of the Zepa convoy does not end the crisis over the UN relief programme in eastern Bosnia. While Zepa was lucky this time, a convoy destined for the much larger nearby town of Gorazde failed to get through, blocked by landmines and heavy snow.

With most aid convoys in eastern Bosnia subject to the whims of local Serbian military commanders, pressure is growing on the UN to consider the option of dropping aid to besieged Muslim enclaves by plane. President Clinton, speaking on US television at the weekend, publicly endorsed the idea of air drops.

While air drops look like an admirably clear-cut way to unblock the logjam over the distribution of aid in Bosnia, UN officials on the ground have given the proposal a cool response. 'It would only be considered as a last resort,' said a UNHCR spokesman in Sarajevo.

The UN is concerned that planes are not efficient at dropping aid, cannot carry heavy loads, and would have problems dropping the aid over the right spot. Much of the food and medicine could be damaged in an air drop.

But it is not just a question of dropping the right material over the right place that concerns UN aid officials. All sides in the Bosnian war are deeply suspicious of the UN and prone to accusing it of supplying not just food but arms to their opponents.

Land convoys may crawl along at a snail's pace. But at least after searching the convoys, the Serbs have not been able to accuse the UN of supplying Muslims with weapons.

Air drops would undoubtedly excite the worst suspicions about the UN among the Serbs, and there is a high risk that the Serbs would shoot at planes dropping aid over Muslim towns in eastern Bosnia.

Macedonia police used water cannons and tear-gas to disperse an angry crowd of several thousand in the capital, Skopje, demonstrating against proposals to use a housing project to accommodate Bosnian Muslim refugees.