Slow path to setting up 'safe areas': The UN says it has disarmed Muslims inside Srebrenica. The Serbs want to believe otherwise, writes Robert Block

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The Independent Online
WHEN Srebrenica's Muslim defenders captured two tanks from their Bosnian Serb enemies last summer, it was one of the high points in a six-month counter-offensive. Many fighters died in the battle for the tanks and the whole town celebrated when the big guns first clunked their way down the long main street.

Today those same tanks look pitiful and small parked in a compound guarded by Canadian soldiers on the edge of Srebrenica. They sit ready for the scrap heap alongside some rusting artillery pieces and a pile of small-arms. These are the weapons surrendered by the Muslims to United Nations forces under the demilitarisation agreement to make Srebrenica a 'safe area'. For the Muslims, the compound is a symbol of their defeat and an ignominious memorial to those who died fighting.

The Bosnian Serbs, however, see that arsenal and laugh. They say what is collected behind the chainlink fence represents only 15 per cent of the Muslim weapons which defended the town for a year. Srebrenica, they maintain, is not demilitarised.

'They did not surrender their weapons, they buried them (12 feet) underground so not even metal detectors could find them. The Muslims are just waiting for the right moment to dig them up again,' said a Serb soldier guarding the main checkpoint entrance to Srebrenica earlier this week. The Serbian doubts are important because they are the excuse used to control the flow of humanitarian aid and water to the estimated 49,000 refugees who are living in the hellhole of Srebrenica.

The future effectiveness of 'safe area' agreements for Bosnia-Herzegovina may depend on the number of guns; not the quantity of weapons protecting the areas but how many are surrendered to UN forces by the defenders of each area.

The demilitarisation of the 'safe areas' is the first step in current international hopes for peace in Bosnia. Its importance was to have been underscored yesterday with talks between Bosnian Serb and Muslim military commanders over the demilitarisation of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. But the talks were postponed. In any event, critics of the 'safe area' concept say that if demilitarisation has so far been unable to work properly in smaller contested areas, such as Srebrenica, then the chances for success in Sarajevo are virtually non-existent.

So far six towns - Zepa, Gorazde, Bihac, Tuzla, Srebrenica and Sarajevo - have been declared Muslim 'safe areas' by the UN Security Council, but only Srebrenica has been assigned any troop protection. While Srebrenica was in many ways an unwanted model for a 'safe area', none the less the precedent was established there.

Under the 'safe area' agreement for Srebrenica, which is now to be applied to Zepa, Muslim soldiers must surrender their weapons and uniforms or leave the area. According to Canadian officers, not a man, woman or child can be seen either in uniform or carrying a weapon in Srebrenica. But since there is no accurate data on how many fighters chose to leave the area with their weapons, it is difficult to assess how many people had arms in the first place. This provides the Serbs with a loophole to be able to keep their forces in the area and deny that demilitarisation has taken place while the UN is hard-pressed to show otherwise.

Two weeks ago, General Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, denied humanitarian aid convoys access to all of Bosnia for several days because he said the UN had failed to demilitarise Srebrenica. Although aid quickly resumed after UN complaints, the Bosnian Serbs still refused to allow tents and plastic sheeting for shelters to reach Srebrenica, rapidly sinking under the weight of humanity which has taken refuge there. 'Srebrenica is not even yet at the standard of a refugee camp,' said one UN official in Zagreb yesterday.

Prompted by heightened Serb attacks on the besieged Muslim town of Maglaj, UN officials yesterday suggested American air drops of food and medicine to the town may start within days.

The announcement came as a Bosnian Serb offensive against the Muslim outpost in northern-central Bosnia entered its 12th day, worsening the plight of 30,000 residents. Maglaj is not cut off from Muslim-held regions of central and northern Bosnia. But intense shelling by Bosnian Serb forces has made it almost impossible for food trucks to reach the town, threatening the local population with starvation.

(Photograph omitted)