Restraint is order of the day

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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

For the Bosnian government and its most ardent Western supporters, the UN withdrawal from Gorazde represents another damning piece of evidence that Western governments are selling out the long-suffering Muslim population of Bosnia.

For Western politicians who consider themselves realists, however, the withdrawal merely recognises that no peace settlement will last unless Gorazde, the only area of eastern Bosnia still in government hands, is eventually allocated to the Bosnian Serbs.

There remains, in principle, a Western commitment to use massive aerial force against the Bosnian Serbs if they launch an offensive to seize Gorazde, a UN-protected "safe area". However, the withdrawal of British and Ukrainian UN forces follows the collapse of Srebrenica and Zepa, the other Muslim enclaves of eastern Bosnia, and brings into question the West's determination to ensure a post-war Muslim presence in the Drina valley.

From an outsider's point of view, it may seem neater to allow the Bosnian Serbs total control of eastern Bosnia in return for the establishment of a more compact, easily defendable Muslim-Croat region in western and central Bosnia. But if such are the lines along which Western governments have been thinking, it becomes all the harder to understand why they identified Gorazde last month as a trip-wire that, if pulled by the Bosnian Serbs, would activate the most severe Nato military response of the war.

One explanation is that the Clinton administration and European governments fear condemnation at home and in the court of international opinion as appeasers of the Bosnian Serbs. The Drina valley has witnessed some of the war's most brutal "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims, and to sign away the entire area to the Bosnian Serbs certainly smacks of craven surrender to aggression.

Nevertheless the US decided to build its latest peace initiative partly upon the idea of territorial swaps between the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim- Croat alliance, contending that this would offer the best long-term guarantee of Bosnian Muslim security. Unfortunately, no sooner had President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia denounced the suggestion that Gorazde could form part of these exchanges than the Clinton administration hastily backed off, giving the impression that its diplomacy lacked consistency and resolution.

The German government, too, reassured the Bosnian Muslim leadership that no one was going to force territorial solutions on the Muslims against their will. Britain, on the other hand, primarily concerned with extracting its peace-keepers from Gorazde without harm, has had little to say about the merits of sustaining a Muslim outpost in eastern Bosnia.

Confusion over Gorazde's future, coupled with the disaster last month in Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serb forces stand accused of massacring several thousand unarmed Muslims, suggest that it would be wiser for all Western governments to acknowledge that there were serious flaws right from the start in the concept of Bosnian "safe areas". The UN Security Council declared six such zones in April and May 1993, but some were clearly much less safe than others.

Srebrenica and Zepa, were the most vulnerable, with Gorazde not far behind. Bihac, in north-western Bosnia, suffered a 1,000-day Bosnian Serb siege that ended when Croatia recaptured the adjoining rebel Serb region of Krajina.

The other two "safe areas" are Sarajevo and Tuzla, representing the Bosnian government's heartland. Despite their dependence on international humanitarian aid and their exposure to continual bombardment from Bosnian Serb heavy weapons, Sarajevo and Tuzla have never been in the same danger of collapse as the enclaves of eastern Bosnia.

For more than two years, the Western powers neither committed the resources nor displayed the will and unity necessary to dissuade the Bosnian Serbs from overrunning Srebrenica and Zepa. Gorazde took a pounding in early 1994 without prompting an effective response from Nato.

Could it be different this time? If the Bosnian Serbs are sensible, they will refrain from attacking Gorazde, calculating that it must fall into their hands. Military factors at play elsewhere in Bosnia also argue in favour of restraint.

Croatia's recapture of Krajina and advance into western Bosnia, coupled with the liberation of Bihac, mean that the Bosnian Serbs have their work cut out to defend their western front. It is more important for them to hold the line there than to risk a confrontation with Nato over Gorazde, which is a strategic sideshow. But logic does not always determine Bosnian Serb behaviour.