Saving Sarajevo: UN troops: Peace-keepers put their faith in 'the few'

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UNITED NATIONS plans to secure 'safe areas' in Bosnia and protect the resupply routes to them would require relatively few extra troops but those forces are still tantalisingly scarce, according to UN sources yesterday. The UN wanted the troops in place in August but that looks highly unlikely. 'Some promises are there,' said a UN source 'but it's a hell of a problem.'

The UN has said that 7,500 extra troops are needed to secure the six 'safe areas', doubling the UN's Bosnia command to about 15,000. But so far only 800 extra French troops, for the 'safe area' of Sarajevo, have arrived. That leaves 6,700 needed even before further troops to secure the routes into central Bosnia are considered. It is understood Bangladesh has offered more than one battalion and the Russians and Ukrainians a battalion (typically 650 troops) each, though the Russian parliament remains opposed to sending troops to this area. Even if these offers materialise, that could still leave a gap of more than 4000 troops.

These numbers assume 'reasonable compliance' with UN plans. According to top Nato sources, alliance planners estimated that 74,000-78,000 troops would have been needed to guarantee the Vance-Owen peace plan 'with reasonable compliance'. The much more modest safe areas plan would require 34,000 troops 'against all opposition' and 8,000 'with pretty good compliance'. The latter is the origin of the figure of 7,500 extra troops the UN say are needed. The safe areas of Tuzla, Zepa, Srebrenica and Gorazde are still waiting for their peace-keepers, as is the large safe area in the west, Bihac.

Over the last two to three months, however, the focus has shifted from the safe areas to the resupply routes into central Bosnia. Sarajevo itself could probably be supplied to the minimum subsistence level by air, but any interference from anti-aircraft fire and, as winter approaches, weather, would make the UN fall short of its target. That places more emphasis on the overland routes: the circuitous route via Prozor, Gornji Vakuf, Kakanj, Visoko and Kiseljak, and the excellent Mostar road, which has been closed for the last two and a half months by heavy fighting. Last winter, the former, with stretches which would have been familiar to Hannibal on his crossing of the Alps, was often closed. The worst stretches of road are being improved substantially, but could still be closed by snow and temperatures tens of degrees below zero.

UN planners therefore covet the Mostar road. Assuming 'reasonable compliance', again - not all-out war with all three factions - the route could be secured with perhaps 1,800 troops. It is about double the length of the northern route currently secured by the British battalion troop based at Vitez with a company detached at the flashpoint of Gornji Vakuf. It includes 14 tunnels, one big bridge and flashpoints in Mostar and Jablanica.

A 'troops to task' analysis would probably recommend two battalion groups plus support - possibly 1,800 troops - in addition to the Spanish battalion already responsible for the route. That force would link up with other extra troops in the Sarajevo safe area.

The Spanish battalion alone is not strong enough to force a path through the flashpoints and had to withdraw during the heavy Mostar fighting.