LEADING ARTICLE: Still no way out of Bosnia

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The Independent Online
"A lot of thought will have to go into our next step because probably it will be the most important step the international community must take this century." This portentous summing up by Alexander Ivanko, the United Nations spokesman, of the bleak choices on offer to everyone involved in Bosnia's miserable war, probably did not cut much ice down in Brawdy, Dyfed, home to the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

The families of the 32 soldiers taken hostage after their positions outside Gorazde were overrun yesterday afternoon probably want action, not more careful thought. They are probably not very fussed about what sort of action it is as long as it frees their sons soon and brings them safely home.

It is difficult not to have sympathy with the relatives; difficult not to feel a sense of ignominy and shame that these young men should be largely forgotten until their lives are at risk. It is understandable that we should want to do something more, perhaps by allowing our boys to do what they are trained to do: fight back. And if they cannot fight back, they should get out.

Sadly, the hostage taking this weekend only confirms the intractability of the Bosnian war; it does little to alter the choices Britain and its partners have in responding to it.

If Britain were to withdraw unilaterally, it would fatally undermine the UN mission. A full-scale Western withdrawal would bring with it the risks of Muslim enclaves being overrun and ethnic cleansing on a scale Western consciences would find difficult to bear.

Withdrawal is not an option, at least not now and not without a sustained effort to prepare public opinion for the consequences. So there is no alternative to engagement with the war. The question is: what sort of engagement?

The main lesson of the past week is that intermittent and ineffective air strikes merely provoke Serb retalia- tion while gaining very little militarily. They have merely underlined Western powerlessness.

Yet escalating military action is out of the question because this would threaten Nato's relations with Russia, and the Russians are still our best hope of persuading the Serb leadership to reach a peaceful settlement. British and French troops should remain in Bosnia as much to make sure the US and Russia do not fall out as to keep Serbs, Croats and Muslims at bay.

The best outcome from this week's hostage crisis would be the resumption of talks with President Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader. The UN should consider limiting its role to what is sustainable, the provision of aid and the maintenance of the Muslim-Croat ceasefire. The worst outcome would be decisions that lead to an escalation of the war, a development which would provoke dangerous tensions between Russia and the US. When the best is not readily available, avoiding the worst is still a worthwhile goal. And, in Bosnia, avoiding the worst means staying in for the long haul, to do what we can to avoid this war turning into a more bloody and threatening conflagration.