Leading Article: Putting deeds above motives

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FOR ALL the unedifying recriminations surrounding it, yesterday's airlift of 21 sick and wounded adults and children from Sarajevo to Britain stands out as an good deed in a dark world. Of itself, it barely scratches the surface of the suffering: as reported today from Sarajevo, there are reckoned to be 14,000 wounded children in that city alone, and 39,000 in Bosnia as a whole. Yet the airlift has helped to transform Western perceptions of the war.

Coincidentally, the Bosnian Serbs have been removing their forces from the hills around Sarajevo. At last, and scandalously belatedly, shelling of the city has stopped. From that particular source at least, there will be no more maiming and slaughter.

Such is the heightened awareness now of Western public opinion that the Serbs would be very ill-advised to resume shelling of the Bosnian capital from any other location. The pressure on Western governments and the UN to mount air assaults on the Serbian gunners would become irresistible.

Amid all the vacillations and failures of will on the part of Europe's politicians, public opinion has been a force to be reckoned with - as it was when the Kurds were fleeing across the Turkish border from Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the Gulf war. Public emotions sparked by the plight of Irma Hadzimuratovic have not only secured action but helped to change the political psychology of the war. It was in deference to the putative demands of public opinion that John Major wanted a substantial quotient of children, as well as of adults, on yesterday's airlift.

It is not surprising that the public relations aspect of the exercise should have upset representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Sarajevo and Geneva, one of whom, Dr Patrick Peillod, said yesterday: 'For me it is a show, and I don't like it. Children are not animals in a zoo.' They move in a world in which bureaucracy is a more familiar handicap than the show-business demands of politics.

Dr Peillod's bitterness is justified. The British record in Bosnia is patchy. The troops sent there to protect humanitarian aid convoys have been substantial in number and high in quality. But this country's record in taking in Bosnian refugees and, until now, the sick and wounded, has been pathetic. As the Independent on Sunday reported yesterday, a centre for Bosnian refugees was closed recently because the promised quota of 1,000 former inmates of Serb-run camps and their families had not been filled. Furthermore, the state of Sarajevo's hospitals has been often and heavily reported upon: if John Major was surprised by Irma's agony, he should not have been.

Yet however strong the whiff of hypocrisy may be, it is what happens on the ground - and in Geneva - that matters. With the Serbs' withdrawal from the hills surrounding Sarajevo seemingly near completion, it now seems possible that Bosnia's Muslim President, Alija Izetbegovic, will be prepared to accept a three-way partition of his country along ethnic lines. For the UN as much as for him, that is a miserable outcome. But at least it will mean that the killing stops, leaving a hideous toll of suffering - and of damage to the credibility of the European Community, the UN, Washington and Nato alike.