Leading Article: We must not abandon Bosnia

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The Independent Online
'TO PULL out would be a disaster; to stay would be a tragedy.' That is how Francois Mitterrand sums up the dilemma of the UN aid operation in Bosnia. Douglas Hurd is unlikely to find any easier answers during his visit there today.

Commanders on the ground will tell him of the frustrations of their mission, their humiliation at having to negotiate with teenage thugs on the roads, their impotence as they watch the aid being stolen, their anger at being shot at by all sides, and their distress at the misery around them, which they can do so little to relieve.

Does that mean that they should be withdrawn? The case for doing so looks persuasive. Much of the aid intended for civilians is being seized to feed the armies, so it may be prolonging the war. The authority of the UN is diminished daily by the need to defer to local warlords. The credibility of the UN, Nato, the European Union and all the outside states involved, already shattered by broken promises and unfulfilled threats, is further damaged by every truck that fails to get through. General Francis Briquemont, commander of UN forces in Bosnia, said yesterday that his mission had become impossible. Perhaps it would be better to face facts, cut losses and retire.

To do so, however, would be justified only if there were strong evidence that the armies would starve faster than the civilians, thereby hastening an end to the war. In reality the opposite would be more likely. The armies would find ways of feeding themselves, while the civilians would not. The result would be still greater suffering heaped on the battered conscience of the West. The present operations are unsatisfactory and inadequate but better than nothing. They save lives, demonstrate concern and, occasionally, by ensuring the presence of Western observers, mitigate the worst horrors of the war.

The questions that should occupy Mr Hurd are whether they can be made more effective and what else can be done by outside powers. Stronger convoys and clearer instructions would help. The UN has been a muddled master. But any decision that convoys should fight their way through the road blocks would expose them to direct retaliation that they are ill- equipped to counter.

On the wider issue, it now seems clear that the war will be decided on the battlefield, not in the negotiating chamber, so the West must decide whether to exert its influence there - for instance, by relaxing the arms embargo on Bosnia. Unfortunately, the Bosnian forces are no longer fighting for a multi- ethnic state; they are driving Croats out of central Bosnia to create a 'cleansed' Muslim state. That is the cause the West would be espousing if it channelled weapons to the Muslim side. There seems, therefore, no obvious alternative to maintaining pressure on all the combatants, including the Croats, who have escaped censure far too lightly so far. The effect will be limited, like that of the convoys, but total detachment would be worse.