UN troops drive Bosnian Muslim forces from weapons exclusion zone

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The Independent Online
AS NATO yesterday demanded yet again that the United Nations take a tougher line against violations of weapon exclusion zones in Bosnia, UN troops drove Bosnian Muslim forces at gunpoint from a demilitarised area near Sarajevo.

The UN move followed Bosnian Serb threats to take revenge for a Muslim commando raid earlier this week, during which 20 Bosnian Serb soldiers and nurses were killed.

UN officials in Sarajevo said yesterday that 'blue helmets' evicted at least 550 men of the mainly Muslim-led Bosnian government army from the Mount Igman area of the demilitarised zone and destroyed their bunkers and trenches.

The UN commanders feared a Muslim attack would wreck their efforts to lift a Serbian blockade on aid for civilians.

Bosnian government troops slipped behind Serbian lines under cover of fog early on Thursday, killing 20 Serbs - four of them women - and wounding six before withdrawing.

Peace-keepers called to the scene by Bosnian Serb forces reported some bodies were mutilated, disfigured and burned. The UN envoy to former Yugoslavia, Yasushi Akashi, repeated the charge in Sarajevo. The report that atrocities had been carried out by Muslims triggered cries of outrage from the Bosnian Serb leadership.

In an embarrassing climbdown yesterday, the UN withdrew the allegation, saying that all the Serbs appeared to have been killed in battle. The damage, however, at least as far as the Bosnian government was concerned, was done.

Bosnian government officials said Mr Akashi's charge was another case of UN bias in favour of Bosnian Serbs, who have besieged the city throughout 30 months of ethnic warfare.

The Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, yesterday demanded an apology from Mr Akashi for his mistaken allegation. 'Mr Akashi seriously slandered the Bosnia and Herzegovina army in his statement which was then spread very quickly all over the world,' Mr Izetbegovic said.

Charges of UN bias in favour of the Bosnian Serbs have fuelled a debate between the UN commanders in Bosnia and Nato, which wants to see a tougher line taken against violations of the exclusion zone, which are mostly committed by the Bosnian Serbs.

In particular Nato has been seeking to reduce the UN's discretion over air strikes in response to violations of the weapons exclusion zones in Bosnia.

In Brussels yesterday, Nato agreed on a letter to the UN, that would reform decision-making, and allow tougher and more rapid action. Violations have become increasingly common, making a mockery of the zones and reducing the West's credibility.

Nato, and especially the Americans, have become restive at resistance to tougher action, especially from Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, the UN military commander in Bosnia. While Nato officials were adamant that they did not want to take away the prerogative of UN commanders, the move is clearly an attempt to go over the head of General Rose.

'We want to get a signal from (the UN Secretary-General) Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who is Rose's boss,' an alliance source said. 'After all, the UN asked us to do this.'

New proposals would make punitive actions almost automatic, following violations. The idea is to have a 'matrix', whereby each level of violation is tied in advance to a particular response. This would be communicated to the warring parties by the UN, with a clear threat that future violations would be followed swiftly by a proportionate response.

If the proposals are implemented, they would speed up responses, by allowing a greater degree of predictability. They would also make it possible for Nato aircraft to attack a wider range of targets. By linking violations and punishments more closely, it is hoped Nato would provide a clearer deterrent to violations.