Airlift for Sarajevo's wounded: Britain to take 20 war victims, Sweden 16 and Ireland 5 after Major agrees to UN evacuation appeal

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FORTY-ONE people seriously injured in Sarajevo, half of them children, are to be flown out under an initiative agreed yesterday by John Major and Carl Bildt, the Swedish Prime Minister. Twenty will go to Britain, 16 to Sweden and five to Ireland.

The initiative comes after an appeal by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has selected those war victims to be airlifted.

The first are expected to leave Sarajevo by tomorrow. Mr Major, on a three-day visit to Sweden, said the delay was due to difficulties in bringing relatives together to accompany them.

Questioned at a news conference yesterday, Mr Major denied that help for the 41 would never have been contemplated had it not been for the well- publicised plight of five-year-old Irma Hadzimuratovic, who was last night still seriously ill in a London hospital. 'I can definitely say that we have been looking for some time at what we can do to help the seriously ill people in Bosnia; I can certainly say that.'

The Bosnian doctor who battled to save Irma's life thanked Western countries last night for accepting the 41 desperately sick patients, urging United Nations bureaucrats to cut red tape.

Dr Edo Kakanjac, 36, was working late in Sarajevo's state hospital when he heard the news. His room was pitch dark. The hospital has been without electricity or water supply for two months. 'I am happy for all those children who are leaving but that is not what needs to be done.' Dr Kakanjac savaged 'unfeeling' UN refugee bureaucrats in Sarajevo who, he said, tied up Irma's case with red tape, and stopped her from getting out when she was still well enough to travel.

'The UN in this city ride around their armoured cars, eat fresh meat every day and always have water and electricity. They behave like Gods, and decide which of us will live and die. If Irma had been in the UN she would have been out in half an hour. Why are their lives more important?'

In Stockholm, Mr Major estimated that the British relief operation had probably saved more than 100,000 lives. He rejected the claim that bringing out critically ill would give the wrong message to those determined to prolong the conflict.

Mr Major told News at Ten last night that taxpayers would not have to meet all the costs. Although the war victims would be treated at NHS hospitals, Mr Major said: 'It (the money) won't come out of the resources available for British National Health Service patients - it will be separate money.'

The Saudi government has pledged pounds 100,000 towards an air ambulance. 'In addition to that, there have been a significant number of private sector contributions,' Mr Major said, adding that companies 'and in some cases individuals' had offered cash.

About 25 doctors and nurses are expected to travel in an air ambulance to Ancona, Italy, from where some will go on by Hercules to Sarajevo.

Last night the Home Office emphasised that Irma was not the first medical case from former Yugoslavia to be admitted: 'There were 68 cases in the autumn of 1992.'

Mr Major and Mr Bilt said Britain and Sweden might take more critical cases but said other nations should play a part.

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, said patients would be matched to hospitals. Offers of beds streamed in from hospitals yesterday, adding to the 50 promised to the Foreign Office on Tuesday.

A leading infectious diseases hospital, Monsal, north Manchester, offered eight. North Staffordshire Hospital, Stoke-on-Trent, and Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham are on stand-by.

The Midland Centre for Neurosurgery and Neurology and the Birmingham Children's Hospital have also offered treatment.