UN misjudges defence of Gorazde: Failure to act allows attack on important target, confounding military analysis of Serb intentions and Muslim resistance

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THE United Nations may have seriously miscalculated in delaying its air attack on Bosnian Serb forces overrunning the Gorazde pocket.

Gorazde is a declared UN 'safe area', whose violation was almost inevitably going to bring Nato air strikes. It has been violated for a fortnight, while peace overtures have continued, yet only now has the UN command realised that the pocket might fall.

Yesterday's news - that the Bosnian Serbs had broken through from the south-east as far as the suburbs of Gorazde town itself - confounded the UN's tactical analysis that the pocket would hold because the terrain favoured the defence. It also seems to have refuted the UN's politico-strategic assessment that the attack on the pocket was a local difficulty, possibly in reprisal for Bosnian army attacks on Serb-held areas west of the Maglaj 'finger' far to the north-west.

The Bosnian Serbs have been the only side in the two-year war, which has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives, that has co-ordinated the movements of relatively large units operating far apart.

The determined and protracted attack on Gorazde has to be part of a strategic plan, not the idiosyncrasy of a local commander. While talking peace, the Bosnian Serbs and their military commander, General Ratko Mladic, have been trying to grab one last strategic prize. Some sources have indicated that General Mladic is being 'marginalised' by the peace party, but the offensive on Gorazde does not bear that out.

About 65,000 civilians - Muslims loyal to the Bosnian government - live in the pocket, which is about 35km (21 miles) from east to west and 20km from north to south. Last week 10,000 people were estimated to be under arms defending it. That is a huge number by the standards of this war, but may have been an exaggeration.

The Bosnian Serbs are close to capturing the bottom third of the pocket, as far as the River Drina. The pocket is astride a main communications artery, with the Drina, which is wide at this point, and a crucial main roadfrom Serbia, running south-west into the southern areas held by the Bosnian Serbs, and into Montenegro. It is a bigger and better road than those on the Serb side of the border. It is possible that the Serbs would be satisfied to secure only the road, but the Muslims would never accept that.

It is no longer possible to blame the Serb attack on Gorazde on local commanders. The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and General Mladic clearly knew about the attack and could have stopped it if they wanted to.

The UN's misjudgement is due partly to inadequate intelligence. Gorazde lies in the middle of Bosnian Serb territory and it is very difficult for outsiders to get there. Until last week there were only four UN observers, enhanced by 10 on the day Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, commander of the UN forces in Bosnia, was turned away. Yesterday UN observers in Gorazde were shot at by the Serbs, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' office said it was concerned about the safety of its own people.

An estimated 100 people have been killed and 400 wounded in the two-week offensive: possibly enough, in this thinly spread war, to break a defending force's will. That seems to have happened, with reports of hundreds of people fleeing. But the Bosnian Serbs could find themselves in trouble if the government forces make a fight of it in the streets of Gorazde.