Nato row over Bosnia 'safe areas': UN aid workers warn of camps where men will do needlework and wait for a slow and awful death

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AT A Nato meeting in Brussels yesterday differences emerged among the Western allies over whether the allied plan for 'safe areas' was justified and could be effectively implemented.

The US Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, said the initiative would at least help stop the killing. However, Germany's Defence Minister, Volker Ruhe, complained that the plan would reward the Serbs and punish the Muslims. Several Nato ministers expressed uncertainty over the number of soldiers needed to enforce the plan, the precise nature of their mandate and where they would come from. Up to 40,000 troops may be needed to patrol the six 'safe areas' if they are to defend the zones effectively.

The plan is also coming under fire from other quarters. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which groups 51 Islamic countries, has condemned the plan for legitimising aggression against Bosnia's Muslims.

On the question of war crimes, the Western allies have seen eye-to-eye. The UN Security Council voted unanimously on Tuesday night to set up an 11-judge court at The Hague to try people alleged to have committed such crimes since the Yugoslav wars broke out in June 1991. The most serious offences are deemed to be rapes, massacres, tortures and atrocities connected with the expulsions of specific ethnic groups from captured territory. However, the court is not expected to operate before September, and the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, vowed yesterday never to extradite suspected war criminals to face the tribunal.

Meanwhile, in Belgrade aid officials are saying privately that the 'safe areas' will be less like American Indian reservations and more like detention camps. 'I would describe them as prison camps or ghettos,' said one official. 'They will be ghettos where there is nothing to do and which are totally reliant on outside assistance.'

Most aid officials predict 'safe areas' will become prey to epidemics and that the Muslims herded into them will gradually die off. Then the 'safe areas' will fall into Serb hands. 'These people will die a slow and awful death,' a UN aid worker said. 'Without regular water supplies and with people defecating in the street and living off poor diet we are going to see mass outbreaks of cholera and typhoid.'

The inhabitants face a future without employment except in basic cottage industries. A UN official said the aim was to get people 'doing needlework and sewing and tending little vegetable plots'. Admitting that this would not provide a livelihood for tens of thousands of men, most of them former fighters, the official added: 'We have to keep them busy. '

Even this nightmarish portrait of a European nation herded into six tiny disease-ridden ghettos to practise needlework may be optimistic. The Serbs have shown they can strangle the ghettos by cutting off vital supplies at any time.

When the UN says 'the population's basic needs are being met' in Srebrenica and Zepa, they mean each person is entitled to three litres of water a day to wash, drink and cook with, and 530 grammes of food. There is nothing fresh and constipation is rife. In Gorazde up to 80,000 Muslims live a marginally more tolerable existence. The enclave is larger and less crowded. A river provides fresh water. Bihac and Tuzla are much bigger. Tuzla is linked by land to Muslim-held central Bosnia. But Tuzla is dependent on outside aid for survival as refugees comprise more than half the 250,000 population.

The UN aid organisation has money to feed the six Muslim reservations in Bosnia until August. But officials say feeding is not the main issue. 'We have to give these people some quality of life. We have to provide a structure to their day.'

None the less it is clear that the 'safe areas' are unsustainable as long-term communities, and in the end the Serbs will get them all.

Letters, page 27

(Photograph omitted)