Serbs put new pressure on Muslim 'safe areas': Robert Block reports on attempts to drive minorities from eastern Bosnia

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The Independent Online
LOCAL officials in the eastern Bosnian enclave of Gorazde ran around the town and outlying areas last month like Chicken Licken, warning people to prepare their underground shelters because the sky would soon be falling with Serbian shells. Since then at least nine people have been killed and more than 50 injured, 11 seriously, by thousands of mortars and artillery shells fired by the Bosnian Serb army.

Six months after the United Nations declared them 'safe areas' for Bosnian Muslims, Gorazde and the two other enclaves in eastern Bosnia, Zepa and Srebrenica, are being squeezed in what is seen as a new attempt to drive the minorities out of the region. If the areas are not being shelled or sniped at they are being denied the very materials they will need to survive the coming winter. International relief officials are predicting disaster.

Most of the 125,000 people living in the enclaves will be reduced to a basic struggle to survive the winter. They will have to burn cooking oil for light and use oxen and horses for transport. 'We're seeing life returning to the 16th century in this region,' said Ray Wilkinson, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Sarajevo.

A recent UNHCR report said that conditions in Srebrenica, the worst of the three areas, were so bad that thousands are likely to freeze to death. 'The chief headache is not food but the terrible shelter conditions. People face the prospect of freezing to death this winter rather than starving to death,' it said. The collapse of UN-mediated peace negotiations has prevented any reconstruction after more than a year under bombardment. According to the report, Srebrenica has been receiving 850 tons of food a week from UN aid convoys, just enough to sustain the population through the sub-zero winter. The problem, however, is that there are no buffer stocks should supplies fail to get through.

Serbian authorities allowed the UNHCR to bring four truckloads of urgent winter items in early October. But after that the Serbs slammed the door shut again, insisting on 'linkage'. 'Each nail that goes in must be matched by a similar nail to Serb areas (regardless of need),' the report said.

Deliveries of warm clothes and shoes, in desperately short supply especially for children, are being stopped at Serbian checkpoints - because no shoes are being sent to Serbian refugees.

Compounding Srebrenica's plight has been renewed military pressure. UN sources said Serbian forces infiltrated Srebrenica's demilitarised zone on 27 October and three people were killed. The Serbs withdrew after the intervention of the small Canadian peace- keeping contingent in the enclave.

'This was the most serious incident in many weeks and indicates that the Serbs are intent on keeping up a permanent military drumbeat against the enclave,' said one UN source. 'They want to keep up pressure in the hope of eventually driving out the Muslims entirely.'

Things are not much better in Zepa and Gorazde. Military activity has increased around Zepa, where some refugees 'are living in stables, huts, destroyed homes and tents'.

Bosnia's Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, earlier this week criticised the UN for failing to send peace- keepers as promised six months ago to Gorazde. In a letter to the UN Security Council he noted that Gorazde was declared a UN 'safe area' under resolution 824, passed on 8 May, which pledged a peace- keeping contingent to enforce it. Mr Silajdzic said Serb guns stopped battering the town when the resolution was passed but were now shelling again.

'For an extended period, the aggressor (Serbs) did not carry out any serious acts but now they are concentrating men and weapons around the town,' he said, adding that 161 artillery and mortar rounds hit the town centre last Saturday.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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