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Srebrenica: remember the town that died

A year after the massacre: International outrage caused by the slaughter in the Muslim enclave brought the war to an end
A year ago, Bosnian Serb forces moved in to the isolated Bosnian Muslim town of Srebrenica, destroying what had been a Muslim community for 500 years and methodically killing large numbers of prisoners. Srebrenica had been under siege for three years and, since May 1993 it had also been one of six UN "safe areas", supposedly inviolate - an obscene fiction, and a betrayal of its population. Out of 40,000 people remaining, around 6,000 were massacred, either immediately or during a terrible long march trying to reach safety, according to evidence presented to the UN and the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

The fall of Srebrenica was a catalogue of disasters, a mixture of the assertion of absurdities and the abdication of responsibility. When the UN passed Security Council Resolution 824 in May 1993, declaring the six safe areas, it did so in defiance of military advice - and logic. According to General Sir Michael Rose, the UN military commander in Bosnia during 1994, the officials were told the proposed "safe areas" would not work. They passed the resolution anyway. As one senior Nato official said yesterday, the idea of "safe areas' was a "fraud". The UN command could not - and would not put enough troops into the areas to defend them, for fear of over-committing itself.

It was the nadir of the UN operation in Bosnia. Yet the humiliation and shame inflicted on the UN at Srebrenica was the catalyst which finally spurred Nato and the UN into action. Instead of pin-prick air attacks, Nato launched a massive attack on the Bosnian Serbs, smashing their military command structure and opening the way for the Croatian army to defeat them. The loss of the enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa and their ineffective UN garrisons opened the way for "peace enforcement" - more conventional military operations, which brought peace. A senior Nato source said yesterday: "Without Srebrenica, the war would have continued to chug on. But it was a terrible price to pay. Maybe it was too heavy a price to pay."

Around 10am on 11 July last year the commander of the 400-strong Dutch UN battalion in the town, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Karremans, once again called for air support following Bosnian Serb attacks which had been going on since 6 July. The Dutch UN force was outnumbered and out-gunned, and their mission had always been ambiguous. "It wasn't big enough to fight off the Bosnian Serb army, but it was too big to be withdrawn easily", a Nato official said. Fighting broke out at about 11am. The Bosnian Serbs brought in tanks and the Dutch "blocking position", south of Srebrenica, was withdrawn. Air support authorised at 12.30 was too little, too late.

The Dutch UN compound had been flooded with refugees the previous night. At 1.40 two shells landed in it, killing some of those previously wounded. Lt Col Karremans ordered the Dutch company, about 100 soldiers, in Srebrenica to fall back to Potocari, north of the town. Eventually, at 2.40, two Dutch F-16 aircraft attacked two of the Serb tanks. The Bosnian Serbs threatened to kill 30 Dutch hostages if the air support continued. By about 4.15 the Serbs had seized the town. Shortly afterwards, the UN headquarters ordered the Dutch to negotiate a ceasefire with the Serbs. At 8pm Lt Col Karremans met General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander. General Mladic demanded the Dutch disarm the Muslim defenders.

It is now known that a large column of Muslim men - between 10,000 and 15,000, many of them armed soldiers - broke out of the enclave and headed west. A massacre occurred at Konjevic Pole where the Bosnian Serbs waited until about half the column had crossed an exposed field and then opened fire.

On 12 July, General Mladic gave orders as to how the remaining population - women, children and older men - were to be evacuated.

Meanwhile, the massacres began. The Dutch soldiers who gave evidence to the International Tribunal on War Crimes described how they heard gunshots for hours as the Serbs executed Muslim men who had remained in Srebrenica. A survivor swore that he had seen General Mladic at the scene of an execution. The Dutch battalion left the enclave on 21 July.

First Srebrenica fell, then Zepa. The new commander of UN forces in Bosnia, General Rupert Smith, extracted his British soldiers from Gorazde. There were no more potential hostages in Serb areas, and the UN forces were concentrated in a defensible area. At the end of August he struck, paralysing the Serbs. Within months, a ceasefire was in place.

Leading article, page 17