UN seeks to save its skin in Bihac deal

Bosnia: Not only are lives at stake - so too is the peace-keepers' role and the cohesion of the Western alliance

THE TRIUMPH of hope over experience is something of a pattern at the United Nations headquarters in Bosnia, where officials are desperately seeking a diplomatic miracle to compensate for the organisation's failure to protect the ''safe area'' of Bihac.

''It's clear that we have failed to deter an attack on the safe area,'' Colum Murphy, a senior civilian official, said in Sarajevo yesterday. ''What we do about it now is the important question. We're going to press on in the next few hours to see if something beneficial comes out of it.''

As the Bosnian government forces confront their Serb enemies across the front line a couple of miles inside the Bihac ''safe area'', the UN is scrambling to broker a peace deal that might save civilians in the pocket. If it fails - and the omens are bad - Bihac might become the last resting-place of the UN mission in Bosnia.

If Bihac falls, the Serbs will gain a significant communications link - the railway from Serbia, via Bihac, to Serb-held Croatia - and eradicate a troublesome Muslim pocket, thus enabling the effective creation of ''Greater Serbia''. Residents of Bihac will have to be escorted out of the area, or funnelled into a ''reservation'' surrounded by hostile forces.

The Bosnian government wants a ceasefire in Bihac, and has offered in return a temporary, nationwide truce; the Bosnian Serb leadership in Pale, Mr Murphy said, was ''linking a Bihac ceasefire to a more comprehensive settlement. Their position was that they had won the war.''

The Serbs have demanded a Bosnian surrender in Bihac, and the freezing of front lines (possibly excluding recent government gains elsewhere in Bosnia). In Bihac, this could bring a demilitarisation of the pocket, or the interposition of UN forces between the warring factions. It is not a solution likely to attract the Sarajevo government;it is furious that the Serbs have yet to suffer for their rejection of the Contact Group peace plan, and confident its army can press on in central Bosnia. ''They're not likely to trade Bosnia for Bihac,'' one observer said.

The UN is in a horrible position in Bihac, where the Serbs have trampled all over the organisation's principal mandates: the delivery of humanitarian aid and protection of civilians in ''safe areas''.

The problem is that the UN, which is entitled to use force in support of its mission, has devalued the only weapon it wants to deploy - words - by issuing threatening statements and failing to act upon them. Spokesmen warned last week that attacks on peace-keepers or the ''safe area'' would inevitably result in air attacks; hours later, Serb forces crossed into the ''safe area''. The UN announced that it could not force them out by calling air strikes, because the troops were too close to civilian areas.

''The Serbs are inside the 'safe area' - now what?'' asked one UN official. ''It's become much more difficult. We don't just have to stop them, we have to roll them back or accept a blatant violation of one of the most sacred parts of our mandate.''

Until now, air strikes - limited in scope and relatively painless to the Serbs - have been used to send political signals to Pale. They do not appear to have worked. This week had been ''little short of disastrous,'' another official said.

The UN is loath to attack strategic targets elsewhere in ''Republica Srpska'', the self-declared Bosnian Serb statelet, for fear of reprisals. ''That may be an option, but how would the Serbs react?'' asked Kofi Annan, the UN official in charge of peace-keeping. ''Would they indeed withdraw? Would they take some of the [UN] troops hostage? Would they go for our soft targets - unarmed military observers, aid workers and so forth?''

(As it happens, the Serbs have already taken around 300 UN personnel hostage - although spokesmen in Sarajevo preferred yesterday to describe their unfortunate comrades as ''guests'', who were ''under observation'' by their captors.)

Mr Annan rightly referred to ''our poor commanders on the ground'', who are ''required on an almost hourly basis to manage this fluid and unpredictable situation''. Their situation can be ascribed to the failure of political leaders to decide exactly how far they are willing to go in Bosnia.

This also meant, one UN official said yesterday, that ''the American approach and the European approach are polarising by the minute''.

The Bosnian government - supported yesterday by Sir John Nott, the former British defence secretary - has repeatedly demanded action to save Bihac, which, like the ''safe area'' of Gorazde last April, is in serious danger of being overrun. Ejup Ganic, the Vice-President, said he had spoken to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, and warned him it was ''not a time for indecision. We saw that movie in Gorazde,'' Mr Ganic said. ''If they knock down the tanks and artillery coming to Bihac, the Serbs will withdraw.''

The UN claims to be confident the Serbs will not press their offensive further. ''Our assessment at the moment is that the Bosnian Serb army will not in fact enter the town,'' Mr Murphy said. ''I think their objective is Fifth Corps'' - the government forces that are based in the town.

The Serbs have expressed it otherwise: ''The Bihac 'safe area' will be safe once our army has entered it and disarmed the Muslim forces,'' Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, said a few days ago.

Even a UN report casts doubt on that. ''The Bosnian Serb army have demonstrated their policy of burning villages and towns in their wake, which must question their published aims.'' If the town does fall, the UN will be as big a loser as the Bosnian government.

(Photograph omitted)

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teachers and Support Staff

£50 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Teacher or L...

SharePoint Engineer - Bishop's Stortford

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organ...

Planning Manager (Training, Learning and Development) - London

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glob...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a Teaching Assistant...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering