The move marks a reversal in the UNHCR's long-standing opposition to protected ethnic zones in former Yugoslavia and is likely to turn up the heat on the debate over what the international community should do to stop the killing in Bosnia.
The volte-face was prompted by the agency's frustration over the decline of Srebrenica, the Muslims' worsening situation in eastern Bosnia and the recent outbreak of fighting between Muslims and Croats elsewhere in the country.
The UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, Ron Redmond, said that on Monday, as a result of the 'dire situation', the agency urged the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to establish safe areas in the besieged enclaves of Gorazde and Zepa, and move in UN personnel before the security situation there worsened. 'The hope is that a significant UN presence, including troops, would deter further Serbian aggression,' a UN official said.
Last month, the UN commander in Bosnia, General Philippe Morillon, promised the UN would not abandon Srebrenica until its safety was guaranteed. Serbs, however, stepped up attacks on the town and there was little UN officials could do other than denounce the bloody onslaught.
Gorazde and Zepa, like Srebrenica, are surrounded by Serbian forces. They are also the only remaining enclaves for the Muslims in eastern Bosnia. The UNHCR estimates there are 70,000 people in Gorazde and up to 30,000 in Zepa. 'We fear Zepa and Gorazde could suffer the same fate, the same loss of life, as Srebrenica if nothing is done and we don't get staff stationed there,' Mr Redmond said. 'We believe it is time for firm action by the international community. These places have to be saved.'
The UNHCR recommendation to the Secretary-General would have to be agreed by the countries with UN contingents in Bosnia, including Britain, and ultimately must be approved by the UN Security Council. Mr Redmond would not be drawn on how the safe areas would be enforced, saying the technical aspects would be left to Security Council members to decide.
The creation of protected ethnic areas in Bosnia would be much more problematic than the safe havens established for the Kurds in northern Iraq. First, unlike northern Iraq which shares a frontier with Turkey - a Nato member and a Western ally - eastern Bosnia is not bordered by a sympathetic country that would make resupply and protection operations easier. Second, the West has gone out of its way to avoid putting its troops in a position where they would be likely to confront the Serbs militarily. Enforcement of a safe area increases the likelihood of such an event.
In the past, the UNHCR has opposed the creation safe havens in Bosnia on the grounds that they might actually help the Serbs with 'ethnic cleansing' by encouraging Muslims to flee their homes for the protected areas. But recently the UN has found itself playing a never-ending shell game with refugees, directing them from one besieged town to another. In some cases, UNHCR efforts have even unwittingly stoked tensions between Muslims and Croats.
According to UN officials, the UNHCR attempts to find shelter in central Bosnia for Muslim refugees from the eastern part of the republic upset the delicate demographic balance between Croats and Muslims, unnerving the Croats and raising fears of persecution. These tensions eventually erupted into fierce clashes in January and again last week.
As a result of the clashes, Mr Redmond said that Croatian officials in Mostar told the UNHCR they were expecting thousands of Croatian refugees and would no longer offer shelter to Muslim refugees.
'It has gotten so that areas to resettle the refugees are becoming fewer and fewer,' Mr Redmond said. 'These safe areas are needed now.'Reuse content