Bosnia: UN accused of making Nato delay air cover

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A NATO operation to protect safe areas in Bosnia has been held up by caution at the United Nations, according to alliance officials.

The Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, yesterday attacked UN inaction on safe areas, saying that virtually nothing had been done on the initiative. UN troops in Sarajevo yesterday threatened to hit back if they came under artillery fire again, and air support would help prevent attacks such as those which hit them on Sunday.

US, French, British and Dutch aircraft are in place and ready to protect UN forces in Bosnia, but the alliance has been asked by the UN Secretary-General to wait. This is because the forward air controllers to direct the operation - under UN command - are not in place. The UN forces in Bosnia would like the aircraft to begin patrolling the areas, and Nato is ready to go ahead, the officials said yesterday. But as things stand, nothing is likely to happen for at least a week.

The air operation has been delayed because the forward air controllers are not in place, their operations centre has not been established and equipment has been slow to arrive. But Nato says it could use air power without the full network of controllers in place, citing Britain's earlier unilateral offer of protection to Canadian troops in Srebrenica. The hold-up reflects the continuing lack of co-ordination between the two bodies. Although relations are much better than in the early days of Nato involvement - there is now an alliance liaison officer in New York - there are still operational problems in tying them together, partly reflecting each side's ambivalence about the other.

The problems over the safe areas are adding to frustrations at Nato's Brussels headquarters over its role in the Bosnian crisis. Senior alliance officials feel the organisation was called in too late, that its hands were tied by member states' ambivalence over a military role, and that not enough thought was given at any stage to the possible use of force.

In future Nato wants to be involved in crisis management at a much earlier juncture, 'at the soft pencil stage', an official said yesterday. This would involve the recognition that force is not always the last option in a crisis, but also that the threat of force at the beginning may prevent a situation deteriorating into a Bosnian-style morass.

However, the UN has taken a cautious view of Nato's involvement in the crisis, fearing that it would merely allow the organisation to take over. Senior Nato officials are angered at their treatment by the UN, saying that they are treated as 'subcontractors,' rather than part of the political process.

Though relations have improved, with Nato now providing planning assistance to the UN on a range of issues, officials believe there is still a lot of work to be done.

(Photograph omitted)