Peace-keeping operation now in danger of collapse

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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

The United Nations Security Council's policy of maintaining "safe areas" for vulnerable Muslim communities in Bosnia was in danger of complete collapse last night after Bosnian Serb forces stormed into the eastern enclave of Srebrenica. The onslaught has exposed the UN's inability or unwillingness to defend the "safe areas" effectively against General Ratko Mladic's armies and raised the question of whether, under these circumstances, there is any point in keeping a UN peace-keeping presence in Bosnia.

Western governments devised the "safe areas" concept more than two years ago as a way of demonstrating concern for the plight of the Bosnian Muslims without committing themselves to fighting a Balkan war. There are six "safe areas": Sarajevo, Bihac in the north-west; Tuzla in north-central Bosnia; and Gorazde, Srebrenica and Zepa in the east.

Since early 1993, all have come under devastating Bosnian Serb attack or have been subject to the more relentless pressures of a siege. Before Srebrenica was given the formal label of a "safe area", the town was the scene of a defiant and courageous gesture by the UN's French commander, General Philippe Morillon, who vowed not to leave until the terrorised inhabitants were safe.

It was a promise that, in the end, he was unable to keep, just as his successor, Britain's Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, was unable to prevent a Bosnian Serb offensive into the Gorazde pocket in early 1994. The shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace in February 1994 that killed 68 people was matched by the bombardment of a Tuzla cafe last May that killed 71.

The three Muslim enclaves of eastern Bosnia are especially vulnerable because they are small, crammed with refugees, physically separated from each other and only lightly protected by UN forces. Western planners have long recognised that a UN withdrawal from Bosnia may result in the rapid collapse of the three pockets, with tens of thousands of lives put in jeopardy.

But Sarajevo, too, is experiencing problems. The international airlift to the capital has been suspended since 8 April, when the Bosnian Serbs fired on planes at Sarajevo airport. Meanwhile, relief workers in the Bihac "safe area" recently reported the first deaths by starvation there since the war broke out in April 1992.

The effective breakdown of the "safe areas" policy does not imply that the Serbs are sweeping all before them in the war as a whole. The Muslim- led forces have performed creditably this year, and their Croatian allies dealt the Bosnian Serbs' Croatian Serb kinsmen a heavy blow in May by retaking the region of western Slavonia.

Britain and France - the two main contributors to the UN operation in Bosnia - have said they will keep their forces there provided they can carry out Security Council mandates. The 10,000-strong European-led Rapid Reaction Force being deployed is meant to enhance the peace-keepers' ability to perform their missions.

But time for the Rapid Reaction Force may already be running out. The US State Department is sceptical that the Europeans are genuinely determined to react to Bosnian Serb provocations when push comes to shove, and some US officials think the European-led force may actually do more harm than good.

Arguing along such lines, the US Senate's Republican leader, Bob Dole, said on Monday that he planned to introduce legislation ending the US arms embargo on the Bosnian government as the Senate's next item of business. "The time for make-believe is over. The UN mission is a failure," he said.

Such legislation would almost certainly spell the end of UN operations in Bosnia, as President Jacques Chirac of France reminded the European Parliament yesterday.