West lacks will to force peace in Bosnia

RUSSIA and the West yesterday asked the UN Security Council to tighten the economic embargo against rump Yugoslavia as punishment for the Bosnian Serb rejection of the latest international peace plan.

After a four-hour meeting in Geneva, the five foreign ministers of the contact group announced plans to extend sanctions on Serbia, and to increase Nato protection of 'safe areas' in Bosnia. But the ministers, from the US, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, declined to recommend a lifting of the arms embargo on the Bosnian government, warning only that such a step 'could become unavoidable' in the face of Serbian intransigence.

The ministers, who expressed ''profound regret' at Serbian rejection of the contact group map, called on the Pale leadership to reconsider its decision and warned it not to resume its stranglehold on Sarajevo. In response, the Bosnian Serb government said it would consider severing all ties with the international community: implicitly threatening to withdraw co-operation with the UN peace-keeping forces.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and his colleagues appear to have done just enough to save their faces, after repeated warnings of 'consequences' if the Serbs did not toe the line. But they are unlikely to have frightened the politicians in Pale, their commanders on the battlefield, or their constituents in Bosnia enough to force a surrender of battlefield gains.

The plan's proposed map of Bosnia, which gives 51 per cent to the Bosnian government and 49 per cent to the Serbs, is fairer than the present 30-70 split because it is closer to the pre-war population distribution. But it requires the military victors to sue for the kind of peace more commonly imposed on losers.

There is now a de facto partition of Bosnia, unjust as that may be, and it seems inconceivable that the policies of the contact group can change that - unless Washington is willing to fight. That is a Bosnian dream and an American nightmare.

The first step in translating diplomatic pressure into economic and then military coercion involves tightening the leaky trade embargo against the rump Yugoslavia. But the bulk of the economic damage inflicted by sanctions has already been done; economic deterioration serious enough to spark widespread social unrest in Serbia will be a long time coming.

The next step along the path to the ultimate threat - a lifting of the arms embargo on the Bosnian government - would be to widen Nato's protection of the 'safe areas'. At present there are six towns under the Nato security blanket: Sarajevo, Gorazde, Srebrenica, Zepa, Bihac and Tuzla. Both Sarajevo and Gorazde are surrounded by 20km exclusion zones from which heavy weapons are banned.

The contact group could extend the zone perimeters or include other towns. It might order Nato to punish violations that until now have escaped retribution; last week Serbian forces fired an 82mm mortar and an anti-aircraft gun in the Gorazde exclusion zone but did not face retaliatory air strikes. On Wednesday they ambushed a UN convoy and killed a British soldier, but again the UN declined to invoke its right to call in the bombers. 'One has to conclude that if the Serbs did not comply, at some point it would escalate from bombing individual artillery pieces to a more generalised bombing of Serbian military assets,' said one Western diplomat.

But an escalation of this kind would almost certainly mean the end of Unprofor, the neutral and lightly-armed UN Protection Force in Bosnia. The UN's reluctance to use air power - sometimes in the face of Nato demands to bomb - is explained by its fear of Serbian retribution. UN officials in Bosnia say they are very worried about an expanded role for Nato, fearing that their troops might be caught in the line of retaliatory Serbian fire. So it is that Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, as well as governments with forces in Bosnia, have warned that the UN Protection Force might have to withdraw if too much heat is put on the Serbs.

The contact group's big gun is the lifting of the arms embargo, a step that would mean the immediate withdrawal of Unprofor. But unless the West had been secretly arming the Bosnians - or unless the West is prepared not just to arm the Bosnians but fight for them - the UN withdrawal would, in the short term, leave Sarajevo's forces at the Serbs' mercy.

John Major's office made it clear that, if there was overwhelming international pressure to lift the arms embrgo, Britain would not veto the move. The possibility of a Government U-turn drew criticism from the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown who, speaking from Sarajevo, said: 'The UN operation and position of our troops would become untenable, increasing the likelihood of a fiercer civil war'.

(Photograph omitted)