UN admits it never recognised extent of Serb evil in Bosnia

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MORE THAN four years after the United Nations watched in horror as Serb soldiers overran the Bosnian Muslim "safe haven" of Srebrenica and slaughtered thousands of men and boys, the organisation is trying to come to terms with the mistakes it made and find ways to ensure they are never repeated.

The lessons of the tragedy, which became a symbol of UN failure in the three and a half years of the Bosnian conflict, are drawn out in a 155- page report submitted to the Security Council. It has been written in the name of the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan. Mr Annan was in charge of UN peace-keeping at the time.

It concludes that errors were made at almost every level, both within the UN itself and between national governments and especially the main players, Britain, France and the US. The misjudgements, Mr Annan writes, arose from an unwillingness to confront the Serbs with a sufficiently powerful military response. That itself resulted from "an inability to recognise the scope of the evil confronting us".

The document offers a vivid and distressing narrative of events starting on 11 July 1995 when Serb forces surrounded Srebrenica, one of six towns designated by the UN as "safe areas". It is estimated that in the following few days, the Serb army rounded up and killed 7,600 men and boys over 16. Helpless to prevent the onslaught were the 110 lightly armed Dutch soldiers de-ployed to guard the area.

There was some consolation yesterday for the Netherlands in Mr Annan's conclusion that blame for what happened should be widely spread. The Dutch national pride was severely battered by the fall of Srebrenica. "United Nations: Dutch battalion's honour restored", declared the top-selling De Telegraaf.

To what extent Mr Annan will be hurt by including himself among those who failed Srebrenica is not yet clear. One senior diplomat said yesterday that the honesty of the report may help the secretary general. "This is not a cover-up and that's good," he said. "Annan has effectively stuck mud to himself and in some ways that may work in his favour."

The central conclusion of the report is the international community underestimated the intentions of the Serbs; instead of punishing them militarily, the Western powers negotiated with them in a manner that "amounted to appeasement". It was in that spirit that governments refused to deploy sufficient numbers of troops to guard safe areas, to authorise air strikes or to end the arms embargo on the Muslims.

"The cardinal lesson of Srebrenica is that a deliberate and systematic attempt to terrorise, expel or murder an entire people must be met decisively with all necessary means, and with the political will to carry the policy through to its logical conclusion," the report says.

Mr Annan also wrote: "There is a role for peacekeeping - a proud role in a world still riven by conflict - and there is even a role for protected zones and safe havens in certain situations. But peace-keeping and war fighting are distinctive activities, which should not be mixed."

The report lingered on the refusal of the UN force in Bosnia, Unprofor, to agree to Bosnian requests for the return of weapons they had been forced to give up. "This decision seems to have been particularly ill- advised given Unprofor's own unwillingness consistently to advocate force as a means of deterring attacks on the enclave," it says.