Leading Article: Time to put a stop to the 'safe areas' sham

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THE 'safe areas' policy in Bosnia never looked good. It now looks worse. As our reports on page 10 make clear, the 'safe areas' are not safe at all. Gorazde is under heavy bombardment. Srebrenica is without water and being strangled by the Serbs, although some food is getting through. Sarajevo is still ringed by artillery and full of snipers. Other areas are doing better but all are highly precarious.

To make them safe would require many more forces than are available. Nobody knows where these would come from. To reach isolated areas such as Gorazde, UN troops would have to fight their way through or impose very strong pressure on the Serbs to gain their cooperation. There is no sign that this will exists. Even if the policy is eventually enforced, which looks unlikely, most of the 'safe areas' will remain little more than prison camps dependent on outside aid and the uncertain tolerance of surrounding Serb forces. Simply to keep the inhabitants of Sarajevo alive through another winter of siege will be far more difficult than last time because there are no more trees to provide fuel.

The official purpose of the 'safe areas' policy was to save lives while working towards a political settlement. That is still the declared aim. It has now been reinforced by a Security Council resolution permitting UN forces to call down air strikes in their defence. Discussions on modalities were under way yesterday at Nato and the United Nations. Perhaps there will be a show of force at some point. Perhaps the policy should still be given a chance.

In the meantime, however, events on the ground are moving away from a political settlement. The Serbs and Croats are consolidating their occupied areas and linking them to their own states. Until recently, Slobodan Milosevic was trying to restrain his Serbs because he was afraid of provoking military intervention. Now, reassured, he has reverted to encouraging them and is steadily strengthening his grip at home.

The bleak reality appears to be that the policy is having the opposite effect to what was promised. It has persuaded the Serbs that they have a green light to pursue and reinforce their conquests. It has persuaded the Muslims that they will have to fight for their rights because they cannot rely on the outside world. It has distracted the West from the main task to which it committed itself, which was to preserve the integrity of Bosnia and prevent the expansion of Serbia.

If the Western allies still seriously intend to pursue the Vance-Owen plan or some variant of it, they will have to make convincing moves in that direction rather quickly or the situation will slide farther away from them. They might, for instance, make a serious effort to cut off the Bosnian Serbs from Serbia. They will certainly have to show that they can in fact protect the 'safe areas'. But if they have given up, as many people suspect, it would be better to come out openly and admit it, rather than hiding behind words that say the opposite. That is not the way governments operate but it would be fairer to the betrayed people of Bosnia.