Former Yugoslavia: Mission Caught in a Maelstrom

THE United Nations operation in former Yugoslavia involves 25,000 soldiers, police, and civilians from several countries. The effort is one of the UN's most problem-bound, controversial, and costly, and illustrates the difficulties the UN faces in its new brand of mission.

An original force of 14,700 was deployed in the spring of 1992 in Croatia. Known as the UN Protection Force or UNPROFOR, it was sent to oversee implementation of the 1991 Vance cease-fire, which required the Yugoslav Army, which backed rebel Serbs, to withdraw and disarm. Provisions of the plan have either not been implemented or have been reversed. And after 18 months of fighting in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and its rebel Serbs are on the verge of a new war.

When war erupted in Bosnia in April 1992, the European Community was in charge of negotiations there. Its personnel withdrew from the capital of Sarajevo because of the fighting, leaving UN personnel as the only international mediators. This, in effect, forced expansion of the UN mission to Bosnia. Later, a small contingent was placed in Macedonia to prevent further Serb actions.

Senior UNPROFOR officials express misgivings about the overall operation, which has seen about 56 men killed and hundreds injured. They complain privately about lack of a clear mission, mismanagement, stifling bureaucracy, political interference, and open hostility from the parties they are asked to assist.

Individual units are often guided by their governments, which for domestic political reasons restrict their actions. The Western powers sometimes seem more concerned with protecting their own personnel than the civilians UNPROFOR is supposed to help.

The UN has reinforced that impression itself by approving resolutions that it declines to enforce, such as the creation and protection of ``safe havens'' for Bosnian Muslims and the use of ``any means'' to ensure the delivery of aid to war-torn areas.

Some of the warring factions have exploited UNPROFOR. UN troops have been attacked, UN headquarters shelled, Security Council directives flauted, and UN relief convoys blocked. Croatian President Franjo Tudjman blames the UN for the continued rebel Serb occupation of 22 percent of his country and claims the UN has failed to implement the Vance peace plan.

This is not to detract from the sacrifices made by individuals and UNPROFOR units. The British units, for instance, have taken enormous risks in trying to keep open aid routes and assist civilians trapped by fighting.

And the former UN commander for Bosnia, French Lt. Gen. Philippe Morillon, took perhaps the most dramatic step of the operation when on his own initiative, he helped save the besieged eastern Muslim Slav enclave of Srebrenica from a Bosnian Serb assault.

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