UN presses Serbs to end blockade of relief convoys

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The Independent Online
International pressure was mounting on the Serbian leadership in Belgrade and on Bosnian Serbs yesterday to let a humanitarian aid convoy reach the besieged enclave of Cerska in eastern Bosnia, where thousands of Muslims are said to be starving.

The British charge d'affaires in Belgrade, Michael Robinson, protested to the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic and to the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, over the aid blockade of Cerksa, a village 150km (90 miles) from Sarajevo which has received no supplies for 10 months.

The diplomatic protest followed the deadlock between the United Nations and the Bosnian Serb military commanders over the convoy, in spite of promises by Serbian leaders to let the food through, and the intervention of Cyrus Vance.

The Serbs showed no sign of backing down as the convoy of 10 UN trucks bearing 90 tons of food and medicine for Cerska's hungry inhabitants remained stranded for a third day in the town of Mali Zvornik, on the Serbian side of the river Drina dividing Bosnia and Serbia. But the UN is determined not to give way. Larry Hol lingsworth, the convoy's British leader, ignored a Serbian ultimatum on Monday to return to Serbia. The convoy's escort of French armoured personnel carriers took no notice of an order to leave Zvornik.

A second UN convoy destined for a Muslim enclave at Gorazde seemed to have better prospects. The convoy crossed Bosnian Serb lines at Zvornik. But UN officials warned that big hurdles lie ahead before the convoy reaches the besieged town.

At the same time as putting pressure on the Bosnian Serbs, UN aid chiefs voiced anger with Bosnian Muslim leaders in Sarajevo over their boycott of UN aid supplies. Sylvana Foa, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, accused the city's Muslim leaders of 'playing politics with humanitarian aid'. The UN is not in charge of distributing aid in Sarajevo - there is little it can do about the boycott, except point to the misery inflicted on the city's 380,000 civilians.

The UN announced it had been forced to suspend aid convoys to Sarajevo, as there is no more room to store food in UN warehouses in the city. 'Until the Bosnian authorities stop depriving their own people of food for political reasons there is no reason to keep distributing,' Ms Foa added.

Civic leaders in Sarajevo proclaimed the boycott last week to protest against the UN's failure to get food through to more than half a dozen besieged Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia that are sheltering about 100,000 people.

Bosnian Serbs started blocking UN aid convoys to Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia three weeks ago in a fresh attempt to starve the last Muslim strongholds in the region into surrender. The tactic has been quite successful. The Serbs this week announced the surrender of a small enclave near Cerska, at Kamenica.

All three sides in the Bosnian war are watching for the outcome of the test of wills between the UN and the Serbs over Cerska. Failure by the UN to get food to Cerska - and the enclave's surrender to Serbian attackers - would deal the organisation's credibility among Muslims a severe blow. At the same time, pressure on the UN to use force against Serbian blockades would increase.

NEW YORK - Mr Vance is expected to resign as a UN mediator and co-chairman of negotiations on the former Yugoslavia, once the peace talks in New York are completed, Reuter reports.

One senior envoy said Mr Vance, 76, a former US secretary of state, had wanted to leave at the end of February but would probably stay on into March to wrap up the current phase of peace talks. 'At his age he has other things to do rather than take this kind of abuse,' said one senior diplomat.

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