The Bosnia Crisis: Sight that shook the world: It was these emaciated ribs filmed in a Serb camp that got the West talking about action. But is that as far as it goes?

WHEN THE first pictures of what seemed to be concentration camps in Bosnia were screened by American television networks last week, President George Bush hurriedly called a press conference.

At Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, where he had been campaigning, he said the United States had for months pursued 'a multi-faceted and integrated strategy for defusing and containing the Baltic (sic) conflict'.

This failure even to name correctly the scene of the conflict seemed to underline the President's desire to keep his distance from the killings and prison camps of the Balkans. Yet willy- nilly that distance is narrowing all the time. Those distressing pictures of Bosnian prisoners, some with protruding ribs and arms as thin as sticks, gazing out from behind barbed wire, made an impact on people in Western Europe and the US which a year of sectarian killings by sniper and mortar bomb had failed to make.

Until last Thursday, the images of death from Sarajevo and the smouldering Bosnian villages could have come from Lebanon or Nagorny Karabakh. Murderous but ragtag militias, evicting or slaughtering their sectarian opponents, are simply foreign to the experience of Western Europe and the US. Vukovar, Dubrovnik, Sarajevo, the refugee tide, the stricken infants; no one could ignore them, but many viewed them, sadly and with resignation, as fresh facets of the chaos of the new order. The symbol of real horror in the West is not feckless butchery by militia bands, but the systematic and organised liquidation of a population in death camps run like factories. Thursday's pictures thrust that symbol before us.

That the world should have woken up to the existence of the camps in Bosnia was overdue: there is a mountain of evidence that the behaviour of the guards is brutal and often murderous, and that the conditions the prisoners must endure are appalling. But it should also be said that as yet there is limited evidence that the camps in question are engaged in a radical policy of mass extermination of Bosnian Muslims and Croats that bears any comparison to Hitler's Final Solution. On the contrary, the Bosnian atrocities, savage as they are, appear to have been conducted entirely on traditional lines. This applies even to the policy of 'ethnic cleansing', outrageous as the words appear. It started on 1 April when Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian leader in Bosnia, first attacked Bijeljina, a town with a large Muslim minority, and several hundred Muslims were killed.

THE WAR in what used to be Yugoslavia is exceptionally savage and bitter; the hatreds are ancient and intense, and propaganda and lies abound. However, the pattern of atrocities inside and outside the camps is now becoming sufficiently clear, with enough similarities between accounts, to produce a credible overall picture. First, there are attacks on Muslim and Croat villages and towns. The defenders, unable to withstand tank and artillery fire, are overrun. Survivors who fail to flee are often killed - word of their fate sending fresh waves of refugees ahead of the advancing Serbs - or they are imprisoned in one of the 94 camps the Bosnian authorities say the Serbs have established.

The great majority of the camps are close to towns overrun by the Serbs in the past four months, particularly in eastern Bosnia, where the Serbian advance was too rapid for civilians to escape. A second cluster of camps is in northern Bosnia, overrun by Serb forces during the second big Serb offensive in June. It is the Muslim civilians captured there by the Serbs who are now at the centre of reports of Serbian atrocities.

The bulk of the evidence of atrocities in the Serb-run camps comes from Muslim or Croat civilians released in exchanges, or who succeeded in escaping in recent weeks. For instance, a 50- year-old professor, who escaped from a detention centre at Brcko in northern Bosnia by swimming across the river to Croatia, said he saw the killing of at least 20 civilians during 20 days of internment in Brcko. Prisoners were subjected to continual beatings and torture by Serb guards, and were attacked by starving Alsatian dogs.

The man said bodies of prisoners flogged to death by the guards were thrown into the river Sava, or dumped in lorries and driven away. Hundreds of similar claims have been reported by Muslims who fled or were released from camps around Prijedor in northern Bosnia.

So far only two of the camps - Omarska and Trnopolje - have been visited by journalists. It was at Omarska that Independent Television News shot its film of 80 prisoners, many of them half- starved and some of them bruised, guarded by green-clad Serb militiamen cradling sub-machine-guns.

The film, as Mr Bush's quick reaction demonstrated, altered the nature of international debate about Yugoslavia. In Britain John Major, who did not leave for Barcelona until Friday, was shown video clips. One early consequence was an instruction quickly sent to Sir David Hannay, Britain's ambassador at the United Nations, to insert strong language on international supervision of the camps, and the admission of independent observers, into the terms of the new resolution being discussed in New York.

It was rapidly becoming clear that words alone might not be enough to satisfy public outrage. An unformed feeling welled up that something should be done to put a stop to Serbian outrages and close the camps. Governments and international organisations came under fire for allowing things to get so bad and leaving it to journalists to uncover the facts.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees pointed out on Friday that 11 days earlier it had distributed a report referring to terrible conditions in Omarska. This had gone out to 4,700 journalists, diplomats and aid officials, but without response. The report said: 'Guards at a prison camp for former local officials in Omarska boasted they will not waste bullets on their detainees, who have no food, water or shelter and who are beaten twice a day. 'They will starve like animals,' one guard said.'

This is all too likely to be true. Another UN internal memorandum, dated 3 July and leaked to the Bosnian mission in New York, describes conditions at a football stadium in the town of Bosanski Novi as atrocious, 'with regular beatings, deprivation of food and water, poor shelter'. Chillingly, the memo concludes: 'We believe the football field detainees are only a tip of the iceberg involving concerted action of local Serbian authorities in BH (Bosnia-Herzegovina) trying to estabish a Serbian republic free of Muslims.'

The UNHCR was quick to deny that it had concealed information about the fate of the Bosnian Muslims, saying that it had to be careful about verification. There is some reason for this. Rumours of atrocities produce immediate waves of refugees, no Bosnian Muslim wanting to find out by first-hand experience the truth or falsity of second-hand reports of massacre and rapine. But there is still a dramatic contrast with the events of the Gulf war. Then, allegations against the Iraqi invaders of Kuwait were immediately highlighted.

There is no doubt that the US and other members of the Security Council have an interest in playing down stories of atrocities in Bosnia. This reduces public pressure on them to take military action, something they have been very reluctant to do. There were signs of these tensions on Tuesday, when the US State Department suddenly back-tracked on its confirmation of stories about people being killed in the camps.

CAN ANYTHING short of military action force the Serbs to change course? The prospects are not encouraging. Mr Karadzic, the Serbian leader in Bosnia, having first denied such camps existed and accused his enemies of attacks on Bosnian Serbs, finally admitted: 'The system of food distribution has been abused. This will be investigated.'

The reaction from Belgrade was sharper. Rattled by the prospect of foreign military intervention in Bosnia, the Prime Minister of the rump Yugoslav federation, Milan Panic, on Friday accepted the existence of camps in which prisoners were abused or killed. He called for them all to be shut down at once, but this should not be taken too seriously. Real power in Belgrade is wielded not by the showy Mr Panic but by the secretive President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, long contemptuous of Western threats and criticisms.

Mr Major, after departing for Spain last week, kept in close touch with Downing Street and interrupted his programme in Barcelona yesterday to speak to Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary. As the public pressure for some increase of foreign military involvement has grown, Britain has been working to limit that escalation, and there are signs that the British have brought the French round to their position.

Given that Western action is almost impossible without a firm stand by the US, Mr Milosevic would have been heartened by Mr Bush's initial stance on intervention last week. Speaking of Yugoslavia before the television pictures had emerged of Omarska and Trnopolje camps, he said: 'Now we have some people coming at me saying, 'Commit American forces'. Before I'd commit forces to battle, I want to know what is the beginning, what is the objective, how is the objective going to be achieved and what is the end.' None of these criteria laid down by Mr Bush look likely to be fulfilled.

A surprising element in the present crisis is that Mr Bush and part of the right of the Republican Party have adopted the rhetoric which used to be employed by the left as reasons against foreign intervention. For instance, Mr Bush said the lesson he had learned in Vietnam was 'don't get bogged down in a guerrilla war where you don't know what the hell you're doing'.

No doubt Mr Bush believes this, though his present convictions look strange in the light of the full support he gave the US war effort in Vietnam at the time. He has used exactly the same arguments to justify his refusal to advance into Iraq during the Gulf war. Mr Bush is, in fact, conservative in the full sense of the word, disliking new initiatives. This affair brings out all his basic caution.

Two further unspoken developments inhibit Mr Bush and his advisers from intervention to save the Bosnians. Since the collapse of Communism, there is no strategic reason for involvement in the Balkans. And US officials feel that the West Europeans, most notably the Germans, sanctioned the break-up of Yugoslavia by recognising Croatia and Slovenia and have utterly failed to do anything to prevent the subsequent decline into a savage sectarian war.

But after last Thursday's ITN film, can Mr Bush really afford to limit military intervention to air cover for relief convoys? Throughout last week pressure grew for military action, some form of which is favoured by 70 per cent of Americans, according to one poll. What makes it particularly difficult to resist is that demands for action are coming from within the Republican leadership as well as from Democrats. Senator Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, said he wanted air strikes on Serbian artillery positions around Sarajevo and even within Serbia itself. 'Why didn't we respond to this aggression 12 months ago?' asked Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader.

At the same time, Bill Clinton and Al Gore took the offensive, by first calling for military action to keep relief routes open. In a not atypical piece of foot-shooting, Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary, first attacked this as reckless, only to withdraw the charge on discovering it was presidential policy. By the middle of the week Mr Clinton was calling more generally for the use of 'air power against the Serbs to try to restore the basic conditions of humanity'.

In theory, an international crisis before the presidential election should always benefit the incumbent, his role as national leader enhanced by combating external dangers and threats. 'Of course, we ought to gain,' said one Republican campaigner last week. 'Why do you think Ronald Reagan was so afraid of Jimmy Carter staging an October surprise - the release of US hostages from Iran in the month before the election in 1980? In a real blow-up, who is going to care about Clinton's bus tour?' In Mr Bush's case a crisis should be doubly beneficial, since his expertise in foreign policy and his undoubted success in the Gulf are one of his few remaining cards against Mr Clinton.

So far, however, it is doing him little good. The end of the Cold War removed an essential glue which held Republican foreign policy together, and a strong strain of isolationism has re- emerged on the far right, as evidenced by Pat Buchanan's campaign against Mr Bush in the Republican primaries.

Doves have also changed. Anthony Lewis, the New York Times liberal columnist once described as being so quick to jump on to his moral high horse that he clears the saddle by several feet, devoted his column to praise of Margaret Thatcher's demand for military action to stop the Serbian onslaught.

This is all the more damaging to Mr Bush since his laurels won in the Gulf war wilted so quickly. Saddam Hussein's survival, the crushing of the Kurdish and Shia rebellions and revelations about American support for Iraq in the 1980s gave the Democrats powerful counter-punches, despite their equivocation on the war. Ross Perot rose briefly to head the polls in the early summer despite his opposition to the war. Above all there was the damaging sense that, whatever Mr Bush's achievements abroad, he had done nothing to resolve problems at home.

And nothing else abroad, from Saddam Hussein's antics to Middle East peace progress, is helping. The emergence of Bosnia as a central concern is that it will make it more difficult - and certainly more damaging - to switch the Secretary of State, James Baker, to run the President's campaign with so many foreign policy concerns visibly bubbling.

The Democrats' most damaging charge is that Mr Bush's experience of foreign policy is of a world gone by, when international relations were determined by the certainties of the Cold War. Bosnia-Herzegovina, for all its extreme savagery, is typical of the more localised crises which will arise under the new world order. As in Kurdistan last year, the White House has no strategic imperative for involvement, but was forced to act by media attention and consequent public pressure. With the discovery of the concentration camps at Omarska and Trnopolje, the pressure to act will be unrelenting.

Richard Nixon said recently: 'You want to remember, every time you tend to write off George Bush he makes the big play.' But in Bosnia-Herzegovina there is little sign of it.

(Photograph omitted)