Leading Article: A clear signal to Serbia

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The Independent Online
THE need for a determined, coherent and principled Western policy in the Balkans becomes more apparent and more urgent by the day. John Major is now signalling his readiness for tougher action to enforce the United Nations no-fly zone in Bosnia, as long as Britain's allies accept that serious clashes on the ground might ensue. The Prime Minister will learn in Washington this weekend that both the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Clinton team are united in the conviction that a more active policy is desirable.

Any new policy should have two distinct, but interlinked, objectives. The first is to put an end to the atrocities in Bosnia, to stop the insidious Serbian advances and to ensure that the Muslims have the haven provided by a duly constituted and recognised homeland. The second is to see to it that the conflict does not spill over into Kosovo and Macedonia, a possibility likely to engender a wider Balkan conflict which could involve such countries as Albania, Greece, Bulgaria and, ultimately, Turkey.

When the Prime Minister reported on the Edinburgh summit to the House of Commons on Monday, he confirmed that the UN Security Council would be asked to 'examine systematically' the operation of the no-fly zone, which Serbia has repeatedly breached since its imposition in October. What is needed, as the Government has finally come to accept, is a clear indication to Serbia that its planes and helicopters will be shot down if they continue to defy the UN. Such a signal can and should be given without delay. More broadly, as Paddy Ashdown argued in our columns yesterday, it is high time that the political aim behind the presence of British and other troops in Bosnia was clearly defined.

It is too late to reconstitute Bosnia-Herzegovina or to restore to Croatia its former frontiers. But it is not too late for the UN and the international community to state explicitly that the beleaguered Muslim community will not be exterminated or driven from Bosnia into the diaspora. This would necessarily involve the threat and the reality of military intervention. But the fears, voiced by Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, and others - that such action would necessarily involve 'hundreds of thousands of troops . . . the probability, if not the certainty, of very large casualties . . . a massive commitment of a kind the world has not seen before' - are unconvincing. The Serbian forces are ruthless and brutal, but they are neither militarily sophisticated nor highly motivated. They can be be faced down.

In Kosovo and Macedonia the urgent need is to put significant numbers of UN troops on the ground, whether or not Serbia approves. Their immediate objective should be that defined by the EC - 'to monitor the peace there'. But there should be no room for doubt in the minds of potential aggressors that the UN forces would constitute a trip wire. They would refuse to be pushed aside, would defend themselves if attacked, and their sponsors would regard an assault on them as an act of aggression against the UN, which would be met with convincing force.

At last the international community is moving rapidly to the realisation that allowing events in Bosnia to be dictated from Belgrade is not acceptable. Britain should be in the vanguard of any moves to reinforce this message.

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