Frustrated U.N. may pull troops out of mission in Balkans, sources say

April 17, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Humiliated by Serbian rebels who have attacked Bosnian civilians and U.N. troops with impunity, officials of the U.N. Protection Force yesterday proclaimed their mission "meaningless" if the Serbs continue to flout them, and sources said they are considering pulling out of the Balkans.

After U.N. officials were unable to halt another Serbian onslaught against the besieged Muslim enclave of Gorazde and the downing of a British jet there, the civilian chief of the peacekeeping force reluctantly authorized punitive air strikes that were never carried out because of bad weather.

But the mission chief, Yasushi Akashi of Japan, also announced that he is appealing to his U.N. superiors for urgent reconsideration of the entire mission.

Since NATO staged a limited bombing raid against Serbian heavy artillery attacking Gorazde last week, rebels have overrun much of the U.N.-designated safe area, fired on U.N. aircraft and soldiers, taken peacekeepers captive and expelled Western journalists.

Yesterday, a surface-to-air missile fired by Serbian nationalist forces near Gorazde downed a British Sea Harrier carrying out a search-and-destroy mission against Serbian tank units, according to Maj. Rob Annink, the U.N. spokesman for Bosnia.

The pilot ejected safely into Bosnian government-held territory, but the attack on the plane highlighted the recent harassment and menacing of U.N. peacekeepers deployed to Bosnia 21 months ago to assist in humanitarian relief.

Later, U.N. officials claimed to have arranged a provisional cease-fire for all of Bosnia on the condition that Serbian rebels release all U.N. hostages and that the mission, in return, call off NATO warplanes buzzing the Gorazde region.

Western mediators and U.N. officials were expected to discuss the truce with the Serbs today, having reached the conclusion that the U.N. mission has neither the authority nor the respect to maintain peace in Bosnia.

At least 200 U.N. soldiers have been taken captive by the Serbs in retaliation for last week's air strikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Movements are restricted for the more than 4,300 peacekeepers deployed to this Bosnian capital, and attacks on U.N. personnel have skyrocketed.

Earlier yesterday, a U.N. plane carrying the mission commander, French Gen. Bertrand de Lapresle, was hit by three shots as it landed at Sarajevo's airport. A French reconnaissance aircraft was also damaged by gunfire a day earlier when it flew over Serb-held positions near Gorazde.

The deliberate targeting of U.N. aircraft prompted suspension of U.N. air traffic and closure of Sarajevo's airport, which had been closed to relief flights as a security precaution.

Near Gorazde a day earlier, a British special forces officer was killed and another wounded when the rebels fired on their clearly marked observation vehicle with artillery and small-arms fire.

At the end of a particularly devastating day for the U.N. mission, Mr. Akashi announced last night that "unless there was serious and manifest intention by the Bosnian Serb army, supported by clear action and cooperation on the ground, it would be meaningless in the present circumstances for UNPROFOR to continue to fulfill its present activities."

The U.N. mission chief said he was "urgently reviewing the future role and status" of the peacekeeping mission with U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and that the two would soon approach the Security Council for new orders.

U.N. sources said the officials would appeal to the Security Council to either empower the mission to use force to protect its troops and endangered civilians or to pull it out altogether.

One source close to the mission command said officials were leaning toward a complete pullout of the 33,000 troops deployed throughout the Balkans.

The U.N. commander for Bosnia, British Lt. Gen. Sir Michael PTC Rose, denounced the situation as "untenable" after Serbian gunmen killed the British military observer near Gorazde on Friday. Sir Michael's appeal to Mr. Akashi to order air strikes then was turned down.

The current mission mandate charges the U.N. soldiers in Bosnia with little more than escorting relief goods. Some peacekeeping duties have been added with the designation of six U.N.-protected safe areas, including Sarajevo. But the 13,000 soldiers deployed to Bosnia are authorized to use weapons only in self-defense, which has prevented them from offering more than symbolic protection of embattled Bosnian civilians in the face of heavily armed Serbs.

Mr. Akashi conceded that the U.N. mission is incapable of fully defending Gorazde, saying too few troops are at Sir Michael's disposal and that U.N. officers are unclear just what parts of the safe area they are obliged to protect.

U.N. officials have privately accused Mr. Akashi of stubbornly pursuing a failed course of diplomacy with the Serbs, who have dragged out peace talks for nearly two years while relentlessly attacking and conquering Bosnian territory.

Even Russia's special envoy to the Balkans, Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly S. Churkin, conceded that the prospects for a peaceful solution looked bleak.

"It isn't going very well," Mr. Churkin told the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug after a weeklong endeavor to bring Serbs and the Muslim-led government back to the negotiating table. Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev flew to Belgrade for emergency talks with Serbian officials.

Buoyed by the international community's reluctance to use force, the Serbian rebels have challenged U.N. troops to give up on their mission.

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