Saving Sarajevo: UN admits that 'safe areas' do not exist: Protection for Muslims

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THE UNITED NATIONS forces in Sarajevo yesterday admitted that the 'safe areas' set up to protect Muslims in Bosnia do not in fact exist. As the Serbian offensive against the city shows no sign of ebbing, the UN spokesman in Sarajevo, Barry Frewer, said the international body never guaranteed protection to 300,000 civilians in Sarajevo, even if the Serbs smashed through the city's defensive ring.

'There are no guarantees, because safe areas have not been implemented,' he said. 'We cannot use force to stop fighting, we can only offer our good offices to mediate.' Mr Frewer added that a UN resolution proclaiming six towns in Bosnia 'safe areas' for Muslims had no practical effect without an agreement from all sides in the conflict, including Bosnian Serbs. Lacking this vital point, the UN says it cannot protect their inhabitants.

The UN resolution on 'safe areas' adopted in May did not talk of winning approval from Bosnian Serbs. The plan was described as a poor consolation prize for the Muslims after the US, Russia, Britain and France ditched the Vance-Owen plan. This proposed dividing Bosnia into 10 provinces and was more favourable to the Muslims. The big powers scrapped Vance-Owen, claiming it was unrealistic. The reason was that Bosnian Serbs would never relinquish any of the territory they seized in the civil war. Delighted by the turn-around, the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, enthusiastically promised co-operation over 'safe areas'. But appeasement has only whetted Serb appetites for territory. Now they want to gobble up 'safe areas' as well, starting with half of Sarajevo, and the whole of Gorazde, Zepa and Srebrenica.

The UN admission will confirm the worst fears of the Bosnian Muslims that the international community has no bottom line when it comes to protecting their rights against better armed opponents.

It comes after besieging Serbs have shelled with French and Ukrainian peace-keepers in Sarajevo. Most recently, seven shells fired from Serbian positions landed only yards from French soldiers setting up a new base near the Bosnian television centre.

Yesterday a spokesman for the French said the Serbian shelling 'did not constitute a direct threat' to the security of the soldiers, adding that the shells landed several hundred yards away. Earlier eyewitnesses claimed the shells landed only 50 yards from the soldiers, forcing them to run for cover.

Serbian attacks on Mount Igman and Zuc hill have continued in spite of a new ceasefire. The hills are the only high points around Sarajevo still held by Muslim-led government forces, and if they go, there are no more natural obstacles to Serbs taking the Bosnian capital.

The UN forces are finding themselves under hostile Serbian fire with growing frequency, each time they move out of established bases in the centre and set up points on the outskirts of the city. The French goal is to set up a 'safe area' in Sarajevo almost by stealth. The Serbs know this very well, and are shelling to stop the soldiers from establishing what are called 'trip-wire positions' on the main exits to and from the city.

Earlier this week the new UN chief in Bosnia, General Francis Briquemont issued a tough-sounding warning to the Serbs - 'fire again and we will open fire immediately'. The Belgian force commander said he was seeking an urgent meeting with the Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, to seek an explanation for the weekend shelling of French soldiers in Sarajevo's Zetra stadium, where UN vehicles were set on fire by an hour-long barrage of Serbian tanks shells. Mr Mladic was unmoved by this verbal ticking off. With some embarrassment, the UN confessed yesterday that Gen Briquemont had not been able to make contact with the Serbian commander for two days.