Drawing a line in Bosnia

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This time, the world's leaders must mean what they say about Bosnia. When they gather today in London for their crisis meeting they cannot again bluster against the Serbs, raise false hopes among the Bosnian Muslims or assuage Western consciences with empty gestures. We have had our fill of hollow words.

The fall of Srebrenica and Zepa has destroyed an international approach based on humanitarian aid, the use of token UN forces to monitor "safe" areas and the application of diplomatic pressure on the warring parties to reach a political settlement. Now that the Serbs have shown they are willing to overrun UN lines and murder the people supposedly being protected, none of the UN's objectives can be met.

What we need is a defendable piece of land upon which Bosnia's Muslims will be genuinely protected, no matter what the intensity of any Serb onslaught. Maintaining the integrity and security of this territory must become the West's central task; only from such a position can it hope at some unknowable point in the future again to press those at war towards a deal.

The only alternative is to withdraw international forces. Despite all the horrors and humiliations of this conflict, the Independent persists in its view that this would be a grave error, morally and politically. Morally, the issue is stark. The Serbs are conducting a brutal, racist war of expansion, violating internationally agreed borders and in contempt of UN resolutions. The fact that appalling acts have also been committed by the other side cannot alter this fundamental point. At stake in the Balkans is Europe's identity as a continent of liberal values, basic human rights and democratic politics. If these are not values for which we are willing to suffer, then we must ask what is the moral basis of our own society.

The physical consequences of withdrawal would also be hideous: more massacres and a tide of refugees, certainly; the emergence of an unchecked religious/ethnic war across the Balkans, perhaps involving Russia, possibly.

The immediate question for today's meeting is how to define that defendable space to which the West must now commit itself. Here arises the issue of Gorazde. Strict military logic suggests that, like Srebrenica and Zepa, it should be abandoned, given its isolation from the rump of Bosnia controlled by the Muslims. The UN force of 400 troops in the town, about 250 of them British, along with 8,000 Bosnian soldiers are ill-equipped to resist a concerted Serb assault. Better, say some military strategists, to fall back from this enclave and defend the consolidated territory of southern Bosnia.

Yet further evidence on our front page today of mass killings in Srebrenica makes it impossible for British troops honourably to walk away, leaving the population of Gorazde to the unlikely mercy of the Serbs. The international community will have to choose whether to evacuate the town's population, if that is possible, or to defend it. In the end this involves a military calculation which we are not qualified to make.

What we need from the politicians in London today are words which can be believed. If air strikes are to be threatened in defence of Gorazde, they must be used wholeheartedly and as part of an adequately resourced military strategy to draw the line beyond which the Serbs shall not pass. We must then hold out for the day when the language of politics can again supplant the language of war. For Europe, there is no escape from this responsibility.