SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — IN a bold move, United Nations military commanders are proposing the establishment of a UN-protected route into Sarajevo that would effectively break the three-year siege of the Bosnian capital.
The proposal, submitted but not yet approved by UN civilian commanders in Zagreb, Croatia, could be enacted within days. An attempt then could be made to drive a badly needed humanitarian aid convoy into Sarajevo without Serb permission.
The Sarajevo airport has been closed by the Bosnian Serbs for over eight weeks, and UN ground convoys risk being taken hostage.
The UN move could lead to armed confrontations between UN peacekeepers and Bosnian Serbs and place the 256 UN hostages the Serbs are still holding in more danger. Serb leaders could threaten to harm the peacekeepers, whom the Serbs have already used as human shields against the threat of more NATO air attacks, unless the operation stops.
"They still have the hostages," warns a UN official. "We don't know what could happen to them as a result of this."
The aggressive move reflects a sense among UN military commanders that the troubled mission must act now to restore its credibility. The mission received a boost this weekend by Western defense ministers' creating a "rapid reaction force" of up to 10,000 troops.
Part of the rapid reaction force, which is already in place, could accompany the trial convoy or be called into action if the trial convoy is fired upon by Bosnian Serbs, according to UN officials.
Roughly 1,000 British troops, equipped with 45 British Warrior armored personnel carriers have already formed a battle-ready group called "Task Force Alpha" east of Sarajevo.
"It's about 35 miles [from Sarajevo]," says a UN military official who asked not to be named. "[They] could be deployed within an afternoon."
The road proposal reportedly calls for the establishment of full UN control over a narrow winding passage over Mt. Igman, just south of Sarajevo. Long sections of the road are open to attack from Bosnian Serb mortar, antiaircraft, and sniper positions 1,500 yards away. Bosnian Serb forces have also taken back 284 heavy weapons from three UN storage sites in the area that could also be used to target the road.
Observers expect the UN to deploy several of the 45 British Warrior armored personnel carriers, which are armed with 30 millimeter cannons and whose armor can withstand a hit from nearly all weapons in the Serb arsenal, along the road.
Changing the rules?
It is not clear yet what rules of engagement will exist. Under present UN rules the tanks could not fire at Serb gunners unless they fired at someone on the road and no preemptive strikes could be launched.
Cars traveling the road - the only route into Sarajevo when the city's airlift is closed - have been targeted by Bosnian Serbs with increasing frequency in recent weeks. Four Bosnian civilians were killed Saturday when Serbs fired an antiaircraft gun at their car. Western aid groups and journalists report being fired at on the road in the past several weeks.
The move is also being driven by the increasingly desperate situation in Sarajevo, where UN supplies of flour to the local bakery will run out on Saturday. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees officials estimate over half the city's population is fed by the bakery, which may now have to begin using its reserves.
"We remain extremely concerned about the food situation in Sarajevo," Marc Cutts, a UNHCR spokesman said yesterday. "We will only be able to meet 15 percent of our [aid delivery] target in the next two weeks."
British Gen. Rupert Smith, the UN Commander in Bosnia, and French Gen. Herve Gobillard are reportedly behind the request. UN officials feel they must make one more attempt to get tough with the Serbs. If that fails, a full withdrawal may be necessary by next winter.
But the attempt to aggressively challenge the Serbs faces one major potential roadblock - UN civilian commanders in Bosnia. UN Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi cautioned in a radio interview that the new rapid reaction force risks putting the UN in the position of taking sides in a conflict.
Mr. Akashi, who has questioned the creation of the new force, reportedly fears confronting the Serbs again so soon after NATO airstrikes risked hostages being killed.
Hostages are key
The Bosnian government has reportedly agreed to the plan, but the key factor for how or if a "new UN" can emerge in the end may be the hostages. An envoy sent by UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was turned back minutes before landing at Sarajevo airport yesterday after Bosnian Serbs announced they could not guarantee the plane's safety.
UN officials said the envoy had planned to meet with leaders in the Serb stronghold of Pale just outside Sarajevo to deliver a fresh demand that the hostages be unconditionally released.
UN officials admit that until the hostages are released, their options - including opening a route into Sarajevo - may be limited.
"You can't ignore 256 peacekeepers that have been taken hostage," UN spokesman Alexander Ivanko said yesterday. "How can you risk 256 lives?"