INTERVIEW / West's blundering blamed in relief crisis: David Howell MP tells Tony Barber that Bosnia cannot be restored as a state

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WESTERN policies on Bosnia have been so inept that they have contributed to the current humanitarian aid crisis in the republic, David Howell, the chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said yesterday. In an interview with the Independent, he said Western countries should accept that it was no longer possible to restore Bosnia as an independent state with an active central government inside its pre-war borders.

'The international community's blundering attempt to assert the existence of Bosnia as an independent state has been fuel on the flames of Serbian and Croatian expansionism. If the politics is screwing it all up and incensing these people so they carry on killing, then it makes the relief effort harder day by day.'

He said the West could allow the Bosnian Muslims and defenders of Sarajevo access to weapons, at present denied by UN embargo, so that they could neutralise Serbian artillery positions. But he rejected direct Western military involvement, saying that governments did not support the idea and it would be more sensible to limit the West's role to relief efforts, peace mediation and 'honest non-intervention'.

Asked whether United Nations forces should mount an operation to secure the main aid route from Croatia's southern Adriatic coast to Sarajevo, he said: 'Humanitarian efforts must go ahead, and ways must be found of opening the road. But it's all been made infinitely difficult by the inept diplomatic and political handling of the situation.'

Mr Howell said UN forces could use their mandate to return fire to protect relief operations in Bosnia, but that it was unfair to demand a tougher approach from them if Western policy-makers were pursuing the wrong diplomatic approach.

He said the Bosnian Serbs still believed that the West was trying to maintain a Bosnian state in which they would be a minority dominated by a Muslim-led community. 'The more we go on digging the hole that we began digging when we first recognised Bosnia, the more they will try to impede the relief effort. And the more they take that view, the more the Croats will take the same view,' he said.

He added that, by encouraging the Muslim-led government to believe that a unitary Bosnian state would receive Western protection, the West had fostered illusory hopes. 'They feel that aid alone is useless and say, 'What good is food and water if you are dead?' They cling to the thread of belief that the international community means what it says,' Mr Howell said.

He said the Bosnian Serbs and Croats might be persuaded to accept a settlement in which Bosnia was turned into an extremely decentralised state so that each community effectively controlled its own affairs. This might mean that, within a few years or less, Bosnian Serbs and Croats were in practice merged with Serbia and Croatia.