Serbia must be beaten back: Anthony Farrar-Hockley argues that only armed force can save Bosnia-Herzegovina

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The Independent Online
THE STRUGGLE for a share of the Yugoslav cake has become simplified: Serbia is manifestly the principal predator, Bosnia-Herzegovina its immediate prey. Some take the view that the struggle is between local 'brigands', others describe it as a civil war. This suits Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade. A mass of propaganda from his party, augmented by somewhat cruder emanations from the 'Bosnian Serbs', justifies the expropriation of Bosnian lands and the killing or expulsion of Muslim or Croat owners to protect long-standing Serbian interests.

United Nations agencies on the ground, and the international press, demonstrate clearly that Serbia's operations are not protective but predatory. Yet two things have become obscured. First, Bosnia-Herzegovina is recognised as a sovereign state by the UN. Second, the three elements of society within it - Muslims, Croats and Serbs - lived contentedly together even after the break-up of Yugoslavia. The majority of Serbian forces engaged there now were not formerly residents.

The struggle is not, therefore, between local brigands. It is not a civil war, but war being made by the government of Serbia against the sovereign state of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Serbs are supplied with ample weapons - tanks, artillery, mortars and small arms - radios, transport, ammunition and other supplies from the stocks of the former Yugoslav army. They also have planes and helicopters. The Bosnian forces have limited small arms, a few mortars and less than a dozen guns. The plea of their government for a supply of weapons and ammunition from the European Community or North America has been turned down on the basis that more weapons would simply lead to more deaths, which is partly true: more Serb invaders would be killed, but fewer Bosnian Muslim and Croat civilians would be killed by stand-off shelling or sniping. An arms embargo favours only the oppressors.

It has been convenient to disregard this unpleasant circumstance. The Bosnian government is reminded that the UN is providing supplies to areas in need and shelter or asylum for refugees. Sanctions are maintained against Serbia. But the supply columns depend on local Serb commanders agreeing to let them pass. UN forces escorting the supply columns are armed, but are under strict instructions not to fire unless for immediate personal protection. And the sanctions are flawed. For example, there is no shortage of fuel oil in Serbia (and thus for the Serb forces in Bosnia) because the blockade along the Danube is ineffective. Similarly, the ban on Serbian aircraft over Bosnia - the Bosnians have no aircraft - is not being implemented.

Meantime, at their own pace, enjoying complete freedom of action, the regular and irregular Serbian forces expand their territory, kill more civilians, seize more loot in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They have no incentive to stop.

The only means of bringing them to a halt, and thus creating conditions for a negotiated settlement, is military action. This has long been evident, but has been rejected for a variety of reasons. A huge force would be needed: the Germans could not hold Yugoslavia down with 12 divisions during the Second World War. True: but then almost every hand was against them and the occupation of Yugoslavia is not proposed. Action is required only in part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in which a considerable part of the populace is eager to help organise defence.

Moreover, technology has advanced; helicopters are now available to move troops and guns in those widespread mountains. The Serbs have light anti-aircraft weapons and some ageing Russian air defence missiles, but military helicopters are designed to operate in a hostile environment. In some situations they could operate under the protection of ground attack aircraft.

Still, the objection persists that huge numbers of troops would be required. The Nato assessment is 100,000, another opinion raises this to 500,000. This is based on the fact that the opposition would be around 100,000 Serbs in the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but that force is comprised principally of former conscripts. The Serbian army requires large numbers to hold down the territory it has seized, to maintain sieges, and to keep the forces of the neighbouring Croatian Republic in check.

But an intervention would not be dancing to the Serb tune; it would operate in concentrated, engaged areas of its choosing. Two air mobile divisions, operating under air cover from carriers and Italian airfields - the latter involving some in-flight refuelling - would suffice; say, 30,000 troops plus naval and air support. The French have such a division. The British could scrape one together. If the arms embargo were lifted, the militia of Bosnia-Herzegovina would enter the field, adding about 100,000 to any alliance. There would be casualties in the fighting. Hostages might be taken, prisoners certainly would. But if the EC considers that this factor precludes intervention, it is saying that the sacrifice of a very large number of Bosnian civilians and the seizure of their homeland is preferable. 'Ethnic cleansing' will have been judged to be, if not respectable, at least tolerable.

Yet, moral imperatives aside, EC political interests are also at risk if Serbia continues to be indulged. Bosnia- Herzegovina will fall to Greater Serbia in 1992; Kosovo will be 'ethnically cleansed' in 1993. Do we really believe that Islam will remain silent? Those who pooh-pooh the idea that the struggle could extend beyond the Balkans might recall the consequences of the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in June 1914.

General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley is a former Commander-in-Chief of Nato forces in northern Europe.