UN impotent as land-grab in Bosnia gathers pace: With no prospect of international intervention and aid convoys halted, Bosnian Serbs and Croats are closing in on the Maglaj 'finger'

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The Independent Online
THE UN is facing acute embarrassment after recent events in Bosnia, as the warring sides continue to indulge in a land grab that the UN, despite possessing overwhelming firepower in places, is powerless to stop. As the threat of international intervention has evaporated, the UN has been repeatedly humiliated, agreeing to negotiate with the local forces over roadblocks and tolls.

The Croats' blockade of the main UN headquarters for all of Bosnia-Herzegovina, although a minor incident in itself and swiftly resolved, is a symbol of UN impotence and of the local forces' increasing contempt for its international authority.

The Bosnian Croat HVO removed its blockades from the main UN headquarters at Kiseljak and a Canadian company base in the same town at midnight on Sunday, but the Bosnian army (BiH) continued to blockade the larger Canadian base at Visoko. The BiH has been demanding that the Canadians surrender two HVO commanders who are trapped inside the base, but instead of taking the men out by helicopter and removing the problem the UN has continued to negotiate. In recent days convoys have also been stopped from taking supplies where they are needed.

UN sources say they do not fully understand the reasons for the offensives, but the Muslim-led BiH, landlocked in central Bosnia with nowhere to go, is clearly fighting for anything it can get.

The most significant development of recent days has been Serb and Croat co-operation to chop off the Maglaj 'finger', creating a pocket around the BiH-held city. The Serbs had the area surrounded on three sides, but last week the HVO launched an offensive, supported by seven Serb tanks and an estimated 10 armoured vehicles, to isolate the area.

UN sources say no UN patrols have reached Maglaj and it is impossible to determine whether it is still holding out. It lies in the British sector, but British troops have not been into the area since the Warrior armoured vehicle of the British battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Alastair Duncan, ran over a mine a few miles short of Zepce last week. Zepce has been taken by the Croats but Zavidovici is still holding out.

The chief doctor in Zavidovici, working in a makeshift hospital in an underground car park beneath the Hotel Crystal, said he knew of 160 civilian casualties. The Serbs and Croats were openly collaborating and the command structure was organised to reflect this, he said.

Sources in Zavidovici disagreed whether Maglaj was doomed or still had some chance of holding out. There is talk of hostages held in the Maglaj tunnel, just outside the town.

As the press entered Zavidovici, the heavy artillery and mortar fire - estimated at 600 incoming shells a day - suddenly stopped. 'I don't believe it. It's never stopped like this,' said one of the locals. It is possible that the attacking Serbs and Croats thought the white vehicles belonged to UN military observers and did not want their attack publicised. If so, it is one of the few cases recently of the UN - mistakenly or not - influencing the course of this war.