UN planners set out on road to winter

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IT MAY be 30C in the Adriatic port of Split, but winter is fast approaching for the UN planners. Miraculously, few people starved to death in central and northern Bosnia last winter. But this year it could be different, and no one is more conscious of it than the British forces commander, Brigadier Robin Searby. His principal task remains to get aid through to those who need it in Bosnia. In the Tuzla area there are 1 million people. 'When we arrived here last year we were trying to prevent hunger. This year we are facing starvation.'

Last year the inhabitants of central and northern Bosnia had plenty of body fat. 'This winter they're going in with no body fat - they're thin,' said the brigadier. 'The average weight loss is 5 kilos - that's a lot, given that some are small and some are - well, pretty thin to start with. They're prudent, careful people. They laid in stores. This year, that's gone. The livestock level has dropped. They've killed the chicken, so there are no eggs.'

Of the million people in Tuzla, about 200,000 are getting aid from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Of the rest, perhaps 200,000 are farmers who can get by on subsistence farming of potatoes and beets. That leaves about half a million who have no source of food.

Brig Searby's first priority is therefore to improve the main supply routes into central Bosnia. The British Army's routes have dramatically improved in the last month. 'The Sappers (Royal Engineers) are doing a brilliant job,' said Brig Searby. They have started to build a tar road over the 40km stretch, known as route 'triangle' across the mountains between Tomislavgrad and Prozor. 'But you really need two routes,' the brigadier continued. The only operable route in severe winter conditions last year was the main Mostar road, but it contained innumerable roadblocks: teenagers with Kalashnikovs in gloomy tunnels lit by braziers.

It is not inconceivable that the United Nations might try to take that road over, turning it into a UN 'blue route' - or even a 'super- blue route'. Until now, the rules have been negotiated passage. But what is needed to guarantee the lives and freedom of people in central Bosnia is an unterrupted stream of supplies; a 'super-blue route' would mean no local road-blocks: the UN would control the road - and the area to either side. No armed teenagers would be allowed to interfere.

There are other problems. Such a blue route would run through Mostar and Jablanica - both battlegrounds at the moment. But this operation is all about supply routes - and if the two supply routes into central Bosnia cannot be made negotiable, what is the point?