UN 'fails to protect Muslims from Serbs': New chief says there are sufficient troops to guard aid operation - Minorities plead to be rescued from campaign of terror

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The Independent Online
THE international community's efforts in the former Yugoslavia received another blow yesterday when a senior United Nations humanitarian official admitted that it was impossible to protect Muslim and Croatian minorities living in Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina from persecution, forced evictions and murder.

Louis Gentile, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in northern Bosnia, blamed the international community for its lack of resolve to stop ethnic cleansing, but he also said that if there were Western air strikes against the Serbs, UN civilian personnel and other foreign aid workers would be killed or held hostage by Serbs bent on exacting revenge.

'The best I am hoping is that we would be held hostage,' Mr Gentile said in his office in the northern Bosnian town of Banja Luka, a nationalist Serbian stronghold where a brutal end game to 21 months of war is being played out.

International relief agencies have been caught in that game. Following vilification of the UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the local media for what it said was their partiality towards the Muslims, a Red Cross car was destroyed in a bomb attack last week forcing the ICRC to suspend its operations in the area indefinitely.

Unlike other areas of Bosnia which are still contested by Serbs, Croats and Muslims, and where all sides are guilty of atrocities, there is no active war in Banja Luka. More than 500,000 Muslims lived in the greater Banja Luka region before the war, but now fewer than 20,000 - possibly even fewer than 10,000 - remain. The area, however, was not rid of ethnic minorities by victory on the battlefield but rather through a campaign of ethnic cleansing carried out with ruthless efficiency.

'Terrorisation of minorities continues unabated,' said an internal UNHCR report on 20 January. It added that Croatian residents of the city are now victims of intensified attacks, including drive-by shootings at their homes and at least one bombing of a church.

'Muslim and Croat sick and elderly continue to be forced to perform inhumane working obligations and minorities are being forcibly mobilised by gun-wielding soldiers without documentation or written orders,' the report said. It added that UNHCR officers were 'inundated' with requests for evacuation by minority residents of the Vrbanja district of the city, where much of the latest wave of harassment is taking place.

The kind of tactics being used to drive out non-Serbs range from outright murder to one documented case where a Serbian soldier told a 'desperate crying father' to ready a bed for the soldier and 15 of his friends who were going to 'take turns fucking your daughter'.

The UNHCR and the ICRC both operate a protection service which protests against cases of persecution to the local authorities on behalf of the victims. The UN even runs night patrols in Banja Luka in an attempt to deter attacks. But all efforts appear to be of no avail.

'It's gotten to the point where we are misleading ourselves when we tell these people we can protect them. We can't. We gave it our best shot but we have to face reality: we cannot protect these people,' Mr Gentile said. 'What are our choices? Say we can't assist ethnic cleansing and leave them? Or do we take everyone out of here? Even that's getting harder since exit routes have been narrowed down by restrictions on third country visas.'

Mr Gentile, who has served six months in Banja Luka, said the methods used in the persecution of non-Serbs were 'beyond evil'. He was convinced that the Bosnian Serb authorities were behind the terror campaign despite official claims that it was the work of 'extremist elements'.

His harshest words, however, were reserved for the international community. 'The leaders of the Western world have received a play- by-play report of what has been going on here. It is unforgiveable that it has been allowed to go on, month after month. The world talks about prosecuting war criminals but does nothing to stop the crimes,' he said. 'May God forgive them. May God forgive us all,' he added.

Mr Gentile's observations and analysis come at a time when the UN operation in the former Yugoslavia and international policy there are under growing scrutiny and appeared to be in complete disarray.