The commander of U.N. peacekeeping forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina warned Thursday that the international community is in "a race against time" to avert hundreds of thousands of deaths from cold and starvation in the battered region under his protection.
Maj. Gen. Philippe Morillon of France appealed for the swift dispatch of troops to bolster his overwhelmed "blue helmet" force in Bosnia, where only small advance teams have arrived since the Security Council decided more than a month ago to expand the force from its current 1,600 soldiers by about 6,000.
The bulk of the deployment awaits approval from the governments or legislatures of contributing countries; few here expect the mission to be at full strength before the end of November. But by then, the mountainous regions of Bosnia will probably be in the midst of the harsh Balkan winter, and the victims of "ethnic cleansing" who are trapped there without food, water or shelter could be facing death from freezing or famine.
"With the coming winter, perhaps 400,000 residents of Bosnia-Herzegovina are at risk of dying if we are not able to help them," Morillon said in a visit to Belgrade to meet with Serbian and Yugoslav leaders accused of having instigated much of the Bosnian violence.
While he urged foreign countries to speed their deployments, he conceded that U.N. officials have not yet set a target date for bringing the Bosnian mission to full strength or even where the force should be headquartered. It now operates from a provisional base in this Serbian and federal capital.
Meanwhile, Serbian rebels opposed to Bosnia's independence from Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia continue to roll across the multiethnic republic, driving out non-Serbs and undermining already bleak prospects for restoring peace and order.
Despite the Serbian advances across the breadth of Bosnia, Morillon argued that the besieged people should retain faith in a diplomatic solution to the bloodshed that has killed at least 15,000 Bosnians, mostly civilians, in six months.
The Serbian conquest earlier this week of a key northern Bosnian crossroads, the town of Bosanski Brod, achieved the rebels' primary goal of establishing an unimpeded corridor from the republic of Serbia to Serbian-held areas of Croatia, making the insurgents' dream of an expanded Serbia a virtual reality.
But Bosanski Brod's sudden and unexpected fall has intensified fears that Serbian and Croatian leaders have conspired behind the backs of foreign mediators to divide most of Bosnia's territory between them.
Bosanski Brod was thought to have been well defended against the Serbian onslaught that has swept 2 million people from their homes since Yugoslavia began its violent breakup in June, 1991. But the predominantly Croatian fighters and thousands of townspeople beat a quiet retreat early Tuesday, crossing the last northern Bosnian bridge across the Sava River to Croatia.