'The latest development in the Bosnia peace talks leaves us looking into the jaws of a major disaster,' said Ray Wilkinson, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 'Unless there is a speedy peace and an end to the fighting, the entire humanitarian effort will be seriously compromised. Already that looks like being a distinct possibility,' he said.
UN officials say nearly 3 million Bosnians, including Muslims, Croats and Serbs, depend on relief supplies. Many live in areas regularly denied food and medicines because of fighting.
The Muslim-dominated Bosnian parliament effectively rejected the Geneva peace plan on Wednesday, demanding the return of territory 'seized by force'. The plan envisages the division of Bosnia into three mini-states, Muslim, Serbian and Croatian, but the Muslims say the Serbs should give up land that contained Muslim majorities until the Serbian conquests and purges of civilians last year.
UN officials fear that tens of thousands of people will not survive a second winter of war, since sub-zero temperatures will soon grip the Balkans and entire communities lack adequate food, shelter and clothing. Naveed Hussain, the UNHCR programme officer for Bosnia, said the agency needed dollars 350m (pounds 230m) for its operations between October and next March but it was short of dollars 180m.
Aid workers issued similar warnings before last winter, but their prophecies of disaster generally went unfulfilled. This winter, they say, civilians in the war zones are weaker, have lost weight and are more vulnerable to disease. Moreover, the outbreak of war between Muslims and Croats has severely complicated relief efforts.
The US Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, said the Pentagon doubted if Bosnia would see peace before the winter. 'The developments in the peace process in Bosnia have turned rather pessimistic, and we have begun to think in this building about the possibility of Bosnia going through a whole winter without a settlement,' he said.
Bosnian Serb leaders responded to the Muslims' rejection of the Geneva plan by threatening to retract their promise to hand back some conquered land. The Serbs had agreed to widen the corridor between Sarajevo and Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia. But Momcilo Krajisnik, the president of the Bosnian Serb assembly, said: 'We made the concessions so the plan would be accepted, and now it is clear that it will not be.'
The deadlock at Geneva means there is little immediate prospect that Nato troops will be deployed in Bosnia to enforce a peace accord. The alliance is thinking of sending 50,000 soldiers. But Nato's Secretary-General, Manfred Worner, said the peace force could not go in unless there was a clear mandate, rules of engagement and a time limit to the operation.
Western policies towards Bosnia must also take account of hardening attitudes in Croatia, whose government has said it may request the withdrawal by 30 November of all UN troops in areas of the republic conquered by the Serbs in 1991. Croatia's leaders say the UN presence has served to consolidate Serbian territorial gains and has permitted Serbian expulsions of thousands of non-Serbs.