UN warns it may have to quit Bosnia

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The Independent Online
Croatia's decision to expel the UN peace-keeping mission in March threatens the organisation's operation in Bosnia, the UN Secretary-General warned yesterday. The Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, added his voice to predictions of a wider con flagration when the UN mission leaves.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who held a meeting in Geneva with top UN civilian and military officials from the former Yugoslavia, said the peace-keepers might have to leave Bosnia if Croatia refuses to renew the UN mandate after 31 March. "There is concern that it would be very difficult to maintain the forces in Bosnia in the event of a withdrawal from Croatia," the Secretary-General said. "The withdrawal from Croatia would be a disaster, all of us agree."

His warning was echoed by Mr Milosevic, who said the pull-out would "re-open the possibility of a new conflagration". But, President Franjo Tudjman, who faces domestic discontent over the UN's failure to disarm the Serbian rebels and return refugees to their homes in Serb-held Krajina, is standing firm.

The Croatian parliament is debating his decision this week and is certain to endorse it, despite international condemnation and the carrot of economic co-operation offered this week by the European Union.

Mr Tudjman made his decision just as Zagreb and Knin, the Krajina Serb "capital", made some progress: this month the Zagreb to Lipovac motorway, which runs through Serb-held territory, opened under UN control to cars from both sides.

But, in spite of the deal, which is to be followed shortly by the re-opening of a disputed oil pipeline, the shaky truce is unlikely to hold without the 15,000 UN troops who have policed it for three years. A resumption of the fighting between Croatia and the Krajina Serbs would probably prompt Serbia to intervene on behalf of its clients, perhaps helped by the Bosnian Serbs.

Krajina Serb leaders travelled to the Bosnian Serb headquarters at Pale yesterday for talks on "the latest political and military situation", which includes fighting in the north-west Bihac pocket between Bosnian government forces and Muslim rebels backed by the Krajina Serbs.

"At the same time that military activity seems to be relatively quiet, the political outlook continues to be grim both in Bosnia and Croatia," Paul Risley, a UN spokesman, said. "The cessation of hostilities agreement appears to be holding in Bosnia and the cease-fire continues to hold in Croatia. Nevertheless, the UN is very concerned by the increase in political tensions."

Mr Boutros-Ghali said the best hope for renewing the UN mandate in Croatia lay at the negotiating table. "We are hoping through progress in the peace process, in the negotiations going on, this will offer an alibi, an excuse to the different leaders to change their positions," he said. "It will be very difficult for the government of Zagreb to change its position unless there is progress on the ground. So it is an additional incentive for the United Nations and the [five-nation] Contact Grou p to continue the negotiations."

At the same time, envoys from the Contact Group on Bosnia left the country yesterday empty-handed, accusing the Bosnian Serbs of obstructing the path to political talks.