Crisis of confidence afflicts UN in Bosnia: The peace-keeping operation in Sarajevo is rapidly falling apart, writes Robert Fisk

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The Independent Online
THE United Nations military force in Sarajevo is turning into a shambles. Despite public declarations of satisfaction with the Sarajevo mission by UN officials, the international troops in the Bosnian capital appear to have lost confidence in the rules of engagement and orders of their Egyptian commander, General Hussein Abdul Ali Rasek. The UN headquarters perimeter gate is no longer guarded at night - a strand of barbed wire is all that prevents strangers from entering the compound - and the temporary UN civil-affairs adviser disappeared last week.

The three main UN contingents in Sarajevo - French, Ukrainian and Egyptian - cannot speak to one other, have no interpreters to facilitate communications among lower ranks and live virtually separate lives in their headquarters. On Saturday, two UN armoured vehicles lost their way on the front lines between Bosnian and Serbian forces near Dobrinja because the French and Ukrainian crews had no way of communicating with each other. 'We don't speak French or Ukrainian and they don't speak Arabic,' an Egyptian officer remarked hopelessly. 'What are we supposed to do?'

The UN has not even assigned a bomb-disposal officer to the headquarters building in the city: when a 120mm shell fired by Serbian artillery at a UN accommodation block last week failed to detonate, French troops carted the bomb off in a wooden box and exploded it with dynamite, destroying two cars in the process. The nearest bomb- disposal officer is based outside the city, at Sarajevo airport, which is often cut off from the city.

Since 6 August the UN headquarters - its windows smashed and its roadways pitted with shrapnel - has received five direct hits from Serbian artillery. Yet Serbian gunmen at checkpoints outside the city are permitted to demand the identity of all personnel in UN vehicles on operational patrol. Patrol commanders have been told to open the rear doors of their armoured carriers to allow the Serbians to inspect the interior. Compare this with, for example, the UN area of operations in southern Lebanon, where UN troops would never allow Palestinian gunmen or Israeli military personnel permission to take such liberties.

French troops have been told that they cannot return fire at a sniper who has attacked them, even when identified, unless they first seek permission to do so from a superior officer. The French are still bitter following the killing by Muslim gunmen of two French soldiers on convoy duty at the airport. UN officers say that although the French came under fire for five minutes, they did not fire a single shot in return. They say, too, that both the local Serbian commander and the senior French officer on the ground had advised against the convoy route but were overruled by a more senior staff officer at Sarajevo headquarters.

When gunmen subsequently opened fire and killed the two French soldiers, the dead men's colleagues witnessed the strange spectacle of two Muslim militiamen recording the event on videotape. Individual soldiers at contingent level are not to blame. The Ukrainians, for example, are led by a highly respected colonel who speaks fluent English and commands an extremely tough unit.

After spending hours within the UN compound as shells exploded outside and within the perimeter, it is impossible to escape the conviction that the soldiers of the United Nations Protection Force (Unprofor) here are in most cases fine and courageous young men who have been most inadequately led by senior UN staff. 'I am a soldier and I am told it is my job to be here,' a French conscript lamented. 'Every day, we are shelled and we can never shoot back.' As he spoke, a tank shell exploded near the UN car park, sending a plume of smoke into the sky. 'What can we do about this?' he asked, as shrapnel fell around us. 'I want to help the people here but they can't respect us when we behave like this.'

A number of UN officers believe that the Canadian Major General, Louis MacKenzie, who first commanded the Sarajevo contingent, managed to preserve the dignity and morale of the UN troops by refusing to be intimidated by Serbian or Bosnian armies. His soldiers shot back and killed snipers and rammed Serbian checkpoints with armoured vehicles when they were harassed.

Gen MacKenzie spoke openly of Muslim responsibility for attacks on UN troops. The same UN personnel claim that Bosnian displeasure with these comments and what one described as the 'political jealousy' of the Unprofor high command towards the increasingly forceful Canadian officer prompted them to get rid of Gen MacKenzie under the pretext of sending him home with the Canadian contingent when it finished its tour of duty.

Several UN troops also criticised the other Unprofor commander, the Indian General, Satish Nambiar, for being more of a politician than a soldier - an assertion Gen Nambiar has always vigorously denied - and note cynically (and accurately) that his battledress blouse carries more medals than that of General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander during the Second World War.

Certainly, Gen Nambiar has presided over the fastest collapsing morale of any UN mission in the institution's history. Two of his civil-affairs officers in Croatia threatened to resign last month because they claimed the UN's 'sit-rep' reports no longer reflected the utter failure of the mission to prevent Serbian irregulars taking over Croatian homes in the so-called protected areas.

So sensitive is the UN in Sarajevo to the potential anger of the Serbians, who do not acknowledge President Alija Izetbegovic's government in Sarajevo, that it now refers to the army of Bosnia - a sovereign country which is internationally recognised by more than 50 states and holds a seat in the UN - as 'Bosnian presidential forces', equating it with a militia rather than an army. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees relief-convoy drivers - who have no connection with Unprofor - have found that local Croatians believe they are part of the military force and that the Croatians have dumped rubbish on their trucks overnight, thrown stones at their windscreens and pretended to wash their hands then dry them with the UN flag.

The temporary UN civil-affairs officer, a Somali, disappeared from his post last week. The full-time civil-affairs adviser, who is Palestinian by birth returned to his post on Friday. One of his initial acts as UN press officer was to try to prohibit journalists from entering the first floor of the UN headquarters - where reporters can hear at first hand of the UN soldiers' grievances. 'Sometimes,' a UN military officer said ruefully, 'I think the world has forgotten about us.'

(Photograph omitted)