LEADER : The terrible case for restraint

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The Independent Online
Limbs torn from children, bodies impaled on iron railings - Monday was one of Sarajevo's blackest days since the Bosnian war erupted in April 1992, and it was Bosnian Serb forces who carried out this atrocious attack on civilians shopping at the city's main market. Surely, as Bosnia's Foreign Minister, Muhamed Sacirbey, said yesterday, Western attempts to secure a peace settlement "cannot have the slightest credibility as long as this kind of terrorist attack goes unpunished".

There are, indeed, strong political arguments, as well as moral reasons, why the West ought to hit back with force against the perpetrators. One is that Western leaders, meeting in London last month after the seizure of the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, issued a public warning to the Bosnian Serbs to stop their outrages or face massive military retaliation. Another reason is that Monday's bombardment of Sarajevo happened barely a month after Bosnian Serb forces massacred several thousand unarmed Muslim prisoners in Srebrenica. A third is that the UN's forces in Bosnia are now deployed in a way which makes their positions less vulnerable and therefore their threats more convincing. It is plain that if Western governments do not respond adequately to such monstrous episodes, then the credibility of their Bosnian policies will amount to nothing.

But what constitutes an adequate response? It is likely that the moment will arise when the answer to that question will involve bombardment from the ground and from the air, but there is a strong case for thinking that this moment has not yet quite arrived.

This is because the Sarajevo attack occurred at a most delicate moment for the US-led diplomatic efforts to broker a Bosnian settlement. The American initiative, built on the idea of offering as much security as possible to both the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-Croat federation, is the first set of proposals that has drawn a largely positive response from all parties to the war. It may just have a chance of success. It has prodded Serbia's president, Slobodan Milosevic, into applying extra pressure on the Bosnian Serb leadership - above all, by insisting that the Bosnian Serb negotiating team should now include representatives from Belgrade. These officials will introduce an element of flexibility into what was previously a rigid, maximalist Bosnian Serb stance.

After three and a half years of bloodshed, destruction and failed Western policies, it is easy to be cynical about yet another Bosnian peace initiative. But when Western democracies assess the desirability of using military force abroad, it is essential that they ask themselves whether such force will promote or undermine the prospects for a stable political settlement. In Bosnia's immediate circumstances, there are few grounds for believing that the use of Nato force would contribute to a workable peace, however much better it would make us all feel.

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