UN backs off forcing aid convoys through

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"Good news" was how Yasushi Akashi, the UN envoy, described the Bosnian Serb promise to allow aid convoys to enter Sarajevo. His staff in the Bosnian capital were not so enthusiastic, knowing from experience that most promises from Pale are meaningless and that the Serbs can still hold the aid operation and the UN peace-keepers hostage.

A delegation of UN officials from Zagreb travelled to Pale, the Bosnian Serb "capital", this week and won agreement for the resumption of aid convoys to Sarajevo through Serb-held territory, escorted by Bosnian Serb police. The news pushed talk of the UN forcibly opening a route into the city over Mount Igman off the agenda, to the irritation of UN officials in the city.

"It seems that on the basis of good news from Pale ... that the option [of using Igman] doesn't seem to be necessary," Mr Akashi said.

The first aid convoy could enter the city on Tuesday - the Serbs require 48 hours' notice and long ago declared Mondays and Fridays "no-convoy days".

As in the past, it will depend entirely on Serb goodwill. As the Bosnian Serb police are planning to protect the convoys, the trucks will not be accompanied by troops of the UN Protection Force (Unprofor). The deal removes at a stroke Unprofor's main task, which was to assist in the delivery of aid to Sarajevo and the eastern enclaves.

"Even if it works right now it's temporary. It's only postponing what has to be done eventually," said Karen Abu Zayd, head of the Bosnia office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

As she spoke, the UN announced it had lost contact with an aid convoy dispatched to the eastern enclave of Zepa. Sent on Wednesday, it was blocked in Rogatica the same day. The Bosnian Serb army told the UN on Friday it had found ammunition aboard the trucks and was confiscating the cargo. "It's all a bit puzzling...we don't know what they [the Serbs] are up to," a UN official said. "We don't know where the convoy is. We've lost contact."

If the Serbs did allow aid to pass unhindered to Sarajevo, UNHCR would need to run 60 convoys a month to meet the city's needs, which is an impossible goal. It assumes all convoys would receive clearance - that would be a first - and that the agency could muster new trucks and drivers. And, as Mark Cutts, a UNHCR official, said: "Land convoys have proved to be very vulnerable in the past".

Another UN official said: "We've given negotiations another chance; they went up to the little Serb village on the mountain and came back with a few UNHCR convoys. It doesn't relieve the pressure on the UN Protection Force."

Spokesmen in Sarajevo kept a stiff upper lip in the face of questions from journalists who were incredulous that the UN had accepted the Bosnian Serb leadership's word at face value again. "This was a policy decision made by the headquarters" in Zagreb, said Alex Ivanko. The UN in Sarajevo felt that talks with Pale were inappropriate while the Serbs were holding UN hostages. "The humanitarian situation is so dire, the feeling was we have to try to resolve it as fast as we can," Mr Ivanko said. "The Bosnian Serbs always had quite a lot of leverage on who gets fed."

Which is why the UN considered forcing a route into Sarajevo: so that aid could be brought in whenever necessary. Food is running out for UN troops in Sarajevo, Gorazde and Srebrenica.

No mention was made at the Pale meeting of Sarajevo airport - which used to receive 80 per cent of the city's needs and has been closed for almost nine weeks - or of the Serbian blockade on water, electricity and gas.

Mr Akashi said he was anxious for the last hostages to be freed, but seems to have steeled himself for their continued detention. "The pace of releases may begin to be more measured."