bosnia report
No. 9 February - March 1995
Myth of the Month

One of the main weapons of recent Serbian propaganda has been the argument that the "safe areas" in Bosnia are being misused as bases for military offensives by the Bosnian Government. This argument has been gratefully taken up by defenders of UNPROFOR's dismal record in Bosnia, since it seems to justify the UN force's repeated failure to deter attacks against those safe areas, as it is required to do by UN Security Council Resolutions 824 and 836. Such an argument was put forward, in an unusually crude form, by a Daily Telegraph editorial of 23 January 1995, celebrating the achievements of Lt-Gen. Sir Michael Rose. Here is the relevant section of that editorial, followed by our own comments on its key statements.

If there is one truth about Bosnia it is that its problems are insoluble and that the contesting parties are impossible. Nothing proves that better than events at Bihac. That isolated Muslim area was saved by General Rose's diplomacy from being overrun by the Serbs and was established as a "safe haven". As soon as his back was turned, the Muslims transformed Bihac into an offensive base for their forces - which, once they had been retrained and resupplied, went over to the attack. The charge of "favouring the Serbs" stems entirely from the General expressing his justified impatience with this misuse of "safe-haven" arrangements.

  1. "That isolated Bosnian Muslim area was saved by General Rose's diplomacy from being overrun by the Serbs and was established as a "safe haven"." This is completely false. It implies that Gen. Rose was responsible for designating Bihac a "safe area". The town of Bihac was designated a "safe area" by UN Security Council Resolution 824, which was passed on 6 May 1993, many months before the arrival of Gen. Rose in Bosnia. It is also quite false to suggest that the continued survival of the "isolated Bosnian Muslim area" of Bihac was dependent on Gen. Rose's diplomacy, or on that of his predecessors. It was dependent on the existence, within the Bihac pocket, of Bosnian Government armed forces - above all, the Fifth Corps of the Bosnian Army.

  2. "As soon as his back was turned, the Muslims tranformed Bihac into an offensive base for their forces"...; this was a "misuse of "safe haven" arrangements". The argument here rests on a confusion between two quite different things: the "safe area" of Bihac, which is just the town and suburbs of Bihac itself, and the "Bihac pocket", which is an area of several hundred square miles. The supplying and training of the Fifth Corps hasÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ̼ taken place in the Bihac pocket, mainly outside the town, and has been going on since before May 1993 (the Fifth Corps was established in the late spring of 1992). It is true that the Fifth Corps has an administrative HQ in the town of Bihac; but its presence there was not dependent on the existence of the so-called safe area. It was set up there a year before the "safe area" was proclaimed, and could function just as well from a nearby village, or anywhere else outside the town of Bihac itself. In any case, what does the phrase "As soon as his back was turned" actually mean? There is a large UN garrison in the town of Bihac, which reports to the UNPROFOR command in Sarajevo on a daily basis. Its observers can travel in the Bihac pocket; and, in addition, Gen. Rose had a separate team of special observers there, reporting directly to him. The phrase used in this Telegraph editorial seems to carry no meaning whatsoever, except a vague suggestion of Muslim sneakiness and duplicity.

Above all, the entire acount given here of the Bosnian Army's "offensive" shows no sign of understanding what the situation was in the Bihac pocket. Serbian forces had surrounded the area in the first weeks of their onslaught on B-H and kept it under siege since that time. They had been following a systematic policy of starving the civilian population of the pocket into submission: between May and November 1994, 131 convoys attempted to enter the pocket but were turned back at Serbian roadblocks. (This in itself indicates that UNPROFOR was not carrying out its own mandate, which requires it to facilitate the delivery of aid by whatever means are necessary, including force.) On 8 September 1994 Serbian forces launched a large-scale offensive against the Bihac pocket, in a pincer movement involving both Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb troops. This was quite fully reported at the time, not least because the attackers fired a Sam-7 missile at two Sea Harriers which were patrolling the area. One detailed report on this Serb offensive (Ian Traynor, reporting from Sarajevo in The Guardian, 9 September 1994), commented: "Gen. Mladic is known to be keen to reduce the size of the Muslim enclave, to seize control of key roads and railways running through it . . . Now it seems that the Serbs are about to tighten their grip on the region".

The account given in the Telegraph editorial is itself an offensive against the truth, making it seem as if the attempted break-out by the Bosnian Army at the end of October was just an unwarranted (and sneaky) "attack". It ignores not only the military background, but also the elementary fact that the Bosnian Army is the legitimate armed force of the government of the sovereign state of B-H, which has both the right (under international law) and the duty (under the national law of Bosnia itself, which the UK has recognised as a sovereign state) to regain control over Bosnian territory.


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