How to outmanoeuvre the West: The Serbs' assault on Gorazde has exposed the UN's threadbare policy, writes Christopher Bellamy in Vitez

AT A checkpoint called Sierra One early last week, the column of Swedish and Norwegian troops was trapped. Sullen skies added to the gloom.

Sierra One, half-an-hour up the road from Sarajevo, has long been notorious in Bosnia as a place where the Serbs regularly shook down aid convoys and reporters passing through. But this time it was an armoured column, and indeed Western policy, that was held at gunpoint - or rather, rendered impotent by mines laid around the wheels of the UN vehicles.

The 15 Swedish and Norwegian troops at Sierra One are the most visible of about 200 UN people now being held throughout Bosnia. Some are under house arrest; some pinned down by mines near the heavy weapons they are guarding. But wherever they are, they have one thing in common.

As became clear when the fighting around Gorazde exploded on Friday, they are all hostages, held against their will, to ward off a repeat of Nato's air attacks on Serbian forces a week ago today.

It is a tactic that seems to have worked. When Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose called for further air strikes on Friday to halt the Serbs' advance into the 'safe area' of Gorazde, the main reason that he was overruled by the UN special envoy Yasushi Akashi and the UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali would have been the safety of the hostages. The UN civilian leaders would also have felt obliged to consult all the countries that had UN military observers on Serbian territory.

Across Bosnia, UN soldiers are now being 'treated as enemies', according to the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic. 'After the Nato air strikes, our relations cannot be the same,' wrote Mr Karadzic in a letter to Mr Boutros-Ghali. 'We consider that Unprofor (the UN Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia) is on the Muslim side, and we cannot tolerate that decision. I hope you will understand why we cannot co-operate with Unprofor any more.'

Serbs now say they 'hate and despise' General Rose, who made the Sarajevo ceasefire and oversaw the brilliant Muslim-Croat ceasefire, which has changed central Bosnia outside Serbian control from a war zone into one of peace and hope.

Yesterday the Bosnian Serb Army's deputy leader, General Milan Gvero, said: 'Rose has forfeited his credibility with the Serbian people and the necessary moral, military and political basis for his continued participation in the peace process.'

Western diplomats in Belgrade said General Gvero's tough talk was a virtual ultimatum to the UN that talks would not resume with the British general at the head of Unprofor in Bosnia.

In General Rose's successes, perhaps, lies the cause of the Serbs' paranoia and nervous action. They fear the new federation between the largely Muslim-supported Bosnian government and the Bosnian Croats. Last week, a Bosnian general forecast joint operations and, in the more distant future, perhaps a joint army.

Time is not on the Bosnian Serbs' side. Hence the need to grab one last vital strategic asset - the road through the Gorazde pocket - to keep or use as a bargaining counter.

The UN overcame its long-standing reluctance to use the vast Nato air power at its disposal, and attacked last Sunday, purportedly in defence of its own observers.

The embarrassing failure of one of the bombs to leave its aircraft and two of three that fell not to explode has done the American military no good, in a week that also saw the Americans shooting down two of their own helicopters over northern Iraq. But more worrying to General Rose, the UN commander of 15,000 troops in Bosnia, is the way the situation started falling apart.

The Serbs' reaction was utterly predictable. The 'human shield' idea was well advertised by Saddam Hussein. The Serbs were servicing his aircraft at the beginning of the Gulf crisis, and when sanctions began to pile on Iraq, they even kept a couple. Once the UN's aversion to launching air attacks was overcome, the Serbs realised that one way they could stop them happening again, apart from the intervention of their big Slav brothers, the Russians, was, in the politest way, to take hostages.

Last week, unable to fly into Sarajevo, I headed for Sierra One overland. The troops, from the 'Nordic' battalion, were in good shape. They were reasonably comfortable in their armoured vehicles; one Swedish officer said they were actually rotating the men, so that only the vehicles were hostage. Their main problem, indeed, was that they had run out of toilet paper - but a British lieutenant-colonel from Sarajevo was able to redress this critical deficit.

And even though the Serbs' mines boxed them in, front and back, they were anti-tank mines, which are difficult to set off. The Scandinavians, given their firepower, could quite easily have moved them and driven away. But as children accept punishment at school rather than fight the teacher, because they do not wish to fall foul of the system, so it was agreed that they would remain. It was symbolic of the game being played by the Serbs and the UN: there are unwritten rules, but they are not broken.

Like those interminable prisoner-of-war-camp dramas, there is no reason for gentlemen to be more unpleasant to each other than is necessary, even if, as Mr Karadzic has said, they are technically 'enemies'. A colleague here in Vitez, where the media have been massing after repeated failed attempts to get into Sarajevo, was once arrested by the Serbs. The first day's interrogation began at 8am and was rather formal, but was over by lunchtime; on the second day, out came the slivovitz, and they parted as friends - or at least the Serbs like to think so.

Gorazde may be just another small, nondescript Bosnian town, with the misfortune to straddle a strategic road coveted by the Serbs, but it is also designated a UN 'safe area', and as such is supposedly cloaked in international protection. Its effective capture is graphic proof of Western inability to enforce even a limited defensive shield.

This week's offensive has exploited the flaw in the plan identified by critics when the havens were created in June 1993: guarding Gorazde and the other five UN-protected enclaves - Sarajevo, Tuzla, Srebrenica, Zepa and Bihac - would require 10,000 extra peace-keepers. And, despite repeated appeals from General Rose, they are not coming.

Bosnian officials were aghast that the UN appeared willing to let Gorazde fall. 'The credibility of the United Nations is about zero. It's absolutely outrageous,' said Haris Silajdzic, the Prime Minister.

The Bosnian Serbs, targets of an air assault that was not only limited in scope by design but which actually misfired in practice, would probably agree. No doubt, once they have taken Gorazde, and the highway linking Serbian gains in south-western Bosnia with Serbia proper, they will be disposed to return to the negotiating table.

General Rose has a dilemma: to act against the Serbs and risk further reprisals against UN personnel; or to hold off and leave Gorazde, and 65,000 civilians, to their fates.

(Photograph omitted)

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past