Leading article: When warlords stoop to folly

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While diplomats and politicians argue over the upsurge of fighting between Croatia and its rebel Serb foes, the melancholy human cost of President Franjo Tudjman's small blitzkrieg is already clear. Thousands of Serb civilians, many of them peasants whose forefathers worked the unyielding borderlands for generations, have taken flight.

Once again, the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia have been waged without care for the consequences. Once again, the victims, this time Serbs, have nowhere to turn but to the international aid agencies. Once again, they will depend on the soldiers of the United Nations to ensure the delivery of aid.

That is why most people in Western Europe believe it is still right to maintain peacekeeping troops in the warring states of Tito's old federation. It should be clear to all by now, as General Sir Michael Rose has eloquently argued, that the UN contingent cannot impose peace. Nor can it prevent military offensives by any side - the Croat storm troops swept aside those few peacekeepers who barred their path. The limitations of the UN role have consistently exposed its men and their commanders to vitriolic propaganda. The reality is that troops lightly equipped for peacekeeping can - by bluff, bargaining and brass neck - get convoys through, shield the innocent and deter the occasional gangster. They should not be expected to do much more.

It is probably time to acknowledge another reality, which is that international mediation is unlikely to create an overall three-way settlement of the wars between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. It is all very reasonable for dignified personalities to dampen down the flames of localised fighting, as Lord Owen and Mr Yasushi Akashi are doing over Croatia. But not much hope can be reposed in any grander design, since all sides have concluded that the battlefield, not the conference chamber, offers them the best option.

Malcolm Rifkind was therefore correct to point out yesterday that the role of our troops and their comrades in the UN is both worthwhile yet subject to constant review. The Croat-Serb fighting need not detonate the all-out war of which John Major has warned. But if fighting spread throughout the various battlefronts, if UN casualties became unacceptable, if the humanitarian task of the peacekeepers was made impossible - then the Secretary of State for Defence would doubtless conclude with his Cabinet colleagues that it was time to withdraw.

With a foresight that would have been welcome in the years of Yugoslavia's disintegration, Nato has prepared plans for a force of 40,000 men to extract the 44,000 peacekeepers. There is still reason to hope that it will not come to that. If we needed any reminder of the worthiness of our soldiers' task, it could be read in the fearstruck faces of this week's Serb refugees. As long as they can help Serbs, Croats and Muslims survive the folly of their leaders, the troops of the United Nations should continue to do so.