WASHINGTON — WITH fierce winter weather only weeks away, civilians in strife-torn Bosnia are facing as desperate a plight as Europe has seen in 45 years.
United Nations officials say their thin thread of air and land convoys is carrying only about one-third of the total relief aid needed in Sarajevo and other besieged Bosnian towns.
Meanwhile, 45 percent of Bosnian Muslims have become refugees, according to United States government estimates. A total of 30,000 to 40,000 people are now thought to have died as a direct result of fighting throughout the former territory of Yugoslavia.
The UN is likely to soon declare a "no fly" zone over Bosnia to ground Serbian warplanes. But it is not clear how, or even if, that zone will be enforced, or how it would protect the larger land convoys needed to head off widespread starvation once snow and ice sets in.
"A group of European and North American countries is standing around playing a lousy tune on the fiddle while the smell of smoke is getting pretty acrid," charges Daniel Nelson, a professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and former foreign-policy adviser to the US House leadership. He has just returned from a swing through Eastern Europe.
The problem is that, after months of stiff talk, UN votes, and sanctions laying, the situation on the ground in Bosnia remains relentless. Serbs press their attack, unfazed by Western foot-stamping, and the fighting leaves US and European policy-makers with no good choices.
Take a bitter civil war over ancient hatreds, mix in a steady supply of weapons of all sorts, and the result is a situation in which it is not clear how third parties could stop the fighting without massive military force deployed with unclear goals for an indefinite period of time.
Pentagon officials spell that kind of situation "Lebanon," and they are determined not to get stuck in a such a sitting-duck peacekeeper role again.
That seems to have been the point of statements last week by Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said in an interview with the New York Times that the basic criteria for any kind of US deployment of force should be: "You must begin with a clear understanding of what political objective is being achieved."
Talk of limited military intervention bothers him, said General Powell, because "as soon as they tell me it is limited, it means they do not care whether you achieve results or not."
He further played down the importance of establishing a no-fly zone over Bosnia, saying that, in essence, it would still leave plenty of other weapons at the Serbs' disposal.
Since then, Powell's boss, President Bush, has said that the US would be ready to help enforce such a no-fly zone if asked to do so by the UN.
The US and its allies are now drafting a resolution on establishing such a zone, with a UN Security Council vote expected soon.
"We hope to pass it as soon as possible," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Oct. 6. The resolution, however, may simply call for an end to Serb flights without adding any provision for enforcement.
Both Britain and France are understood to be concerned that calling for the use of force in Bosnia under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter would be taken as an act of war by Serbs, and UN peacekeeping troops on the ground could be attacked in retaliation.
UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said last month that those peacekeeping troops were needed to confront the most dire threat in Bosnia - guerrillas blocking larger land convoys from coming in from Split, Croatia. A no-fly zone would simply complicate his peacemaking efforts, the UN chief said.
Dr. Nelson says that a no-fly zone is only about "1 percent of what needs to be done." Most of the killing in Bosnia, he points out, is being done the old-fashioned way: with mortars, artillery, and rifles.
Pentagon officials themselves have said for months that large land convoys are the only way to get in supplies in sufficient numbers to satisfy the needs of all Bosnians at risk.
Such convoys could begin after 6,000 or so reinforcements for UN peacekeepers arrive in several weeks. The total UN force in the former Yugoslavia will soon surpass 21,000, making it about equal with the UN operation in Cambodia and thus tied for largest "blue hat" peacekeeping effort ever.
This week a UN health expert in Geneva predicted that, without an increase in the flow of supplies, children in Sarajevo could be starving in about a month.
The city's entire population of around a half-million could be at risk by mid-November, according to Sir Donald Acheson, a UN expert.