As peace talks sputter, Bosnians brace for winter Humanitarian crisis looming

October 01, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — An Oct. 1 story on Bosnia misspelled the name of Alexande Borg-Olivier, a principal officer in the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

UNITED NATIONS -- The latest collapse of the Bosnian peace plan leaves a population of millions confronting a harsh winter with meager shelter and diminishing stocks of donated food and medicine.

The humanitarian plight will preoccupy major nations' aid agencies in the coming month as they try to prevent large-scale suffering among an estimated 4.2 million displaced, hungry or otherwise vulnerable people in the former Yugoslavia through the winter and spring.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

As the dust settles on Tuesday's rejection of a peace plan by Bosnia's Parliament in Sarajevo, there are these other prospects, according to United Nations officials and Western diplomats:

* International mediators Thorvald Stoltenberg and Lord Owen are likely, perhaps after a pause, to resume trying to find a solution acceptable to all the combatants, Muslims, Serbs and Croats, although Serbs and Croats may now be less flexible. The negotiators have not expressed much optimism about reopening the discussions.

* NATO will maintain its threat of air strikes if Serbs renew their strangulation of Sarajevo and other major population centers.

* Fighting between Croats and Muslims, which has never stopped, could intensify in central Bosnia, with Croats seeking to recoup recent losses to Muslim forces.

* Renewed Serbian aggression is considered unlikely except for skirmishes where their supply corridors are narrow, since Serbs have accomplished most of their territorial goals and, when it comes to attacking Sarajevo, are restrained by fear of allied air strikes.

However, U.N. officials fear that a Serb-Croat alliance could develop in central Bosnia.

Peacekeeping on hold

Rejection of the peace plan broke the momentum propelling the United States, Britain and France to work out final preparations for deploying 50,000 NATO peacekeepers to police settlement.

The three had largely agreed on a command structure that would give the United Nations overall authority but put NATO in control of military operations, working closely with U.N. civilian authorities.

But who would pay the estimated $4 billion-a-year cost was still uncertain. And the U.S. Congress showed increasing signs of balking over the whole operation, leading President Clinton to add new conditions for American participation.

Now, with the peace plan at least temporarily dead, there may be less urgency in the discussions, some diplomats say.

The Bosnian parliament refused to accept the Owen-Stoltenberg plan unless territory seized by force was returned. But other factors may have been at work.

Although U.S. officials deny blame, some diplomats suggested that U.S. actions contributed to the collapse in seemingly conflicting ways.

The threat of NATO air strikes may have emboldened the Muslims to stall, one said. "The Bosnians concluded the Serbs were not going to be advancing on them, so what's the hurry?" one diplomat said.

At the same time, widely publicized congressional unease over peacekeeping may have led the Bosnians to fear that the peace plan might never be implemented.

U.S. officials continue to hold out the possibility of getting the U.N. arms embargo lifted for the Muslims, who have been severely outgunned in the war, while their enemies have been amply supplied despite the embargo against all of them. Britain still insists that lifting the embargo must be a last resort.

Weak and war-weary

For the moment, however, the focus is on the humanitarian plight.

Unlike last winter, which was unusually mild, the coming one, beginning in about four weeks, is expected to be severe. Many Bosnians are less able to face this winter than last, suffering lower body weight and worse physical condition after a year of heavy fighting around them.

"It's a very dismal picture," said Alexander Dorg-Olivier, a principal officer in the U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs. "We've seen a year more of devastation, where shelter has been decimated. We're facing a much larger beneficiary population with fewer resources."

With luck, diminished fighting will allow aid to be delivered with not much more than the arduous challenge now presented, Mr. Dorg-Oliver said. But current deliveries still leave parts of eastern and central Bosnia "not getting anywhere near their essential daily subsistence," he said.

In Bosnia, 2.8 million people, or well over half the pre-war population, are dependent on outside aid for some form of basic survival.

With stockpiles running low, the United Nations plans to launch an appeal Oct. 8 for $720 million worth of supplies to last until next June.

"Our capacity to respond is battered, and it's going to be a major challenge," the U.N. humanitarian official said.

"We need peace desperately. The difficulties in reaching the population increase all the time."

After 18 months of war, fatigue has set in among those supplying help. "It's unrealistic to think we can sustain an effort of this magnitude indefinitely," he added.

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