British gunners dig in to protect last tenuous lifeline to Sarajevo

Click to follow
"I'd prefer to be at home right now with the missus but instead I'm here doing this shite," said the young soldier digging a trench in the rain.

British gunners, with a dozen guns and a handful of bull- dozers, arrived on the top of Mount Igman yesterday to protect the only tenuous lifeline into Sarajevo.

The 400 British troops began digging in shortly after dawn, working first on shallow scoops, making rich brown scars in the emerald grass of the mountain that once hosted Olympic skiing contests.

The incongruity of soldiers in the blue berets of peacekeepers digging in their artillery was compounded by the arrival, several hours later, of the French Foreign Legion driving light tanks painted in desert camouflage. The first active deployment of the West European Rapid Reaction Force, which includes 300 men of 19 Regiment, the Royal Artillery, and 110 Royal Engineers, heralds a new level of Western involvement in the Bosnian war.

Three loud explosions, the first two muffled, resounded in the area, but these were apparently random shots fired by the warring Serb and Bosnian government factions, and not aimed at the newcomers. As a torrential downpour muddied the morning's handiwork, French tanks painted in the sand colours of desert camouflage rolled in. A white UN helicopter circled overhead.

The force's mission is to respond to Serb artillery attacks on "UN protection force installations, convoys and personnel in the Sarajevo area''. The guns are some way from the Mount Igman road itself, using the folds of the 6,700ft mountain to shield them from Serb eyes.

Once the pits for the guns have been dug, alternative gun positions will be prepared so they can "shoot and scoot''. Yesterday lunchtime one of the two six-gun batteries was dispersed across an Alpine meadow, flanked by pine woods. Digging the pits for the guns had scarcely started, but the guns were well camouflaged under netting.

The British gunners reckoned it would take them about two minutes to fire, once they had received orders to attack. Lt-Col Dick Applegate said a team in Sarajevo had already pinpointed likely targets: the Serb guns firing from Ilidza and other suburbs on to the Igman road, the Bosnian capital's only lifeline.

"We've been spending a lot of time checking on collateral damage," he said. "I'm not in the business of just throwing shells around Sarajevo. It will have to be precise, timely and in response to some act of aggression." He added: "There aren't many civilians left in Ilidza."

The Rapid Reaction Force has been derided by many for spending seven weeks sitting around bases in central Bosnia, but yesterday's operation justified the name. "I was in bed at 01.35 hours and the call came - Deploy - and we were ready to go at 9 o'clock on Sunday morning," he said.

It took the French a little longer to deploy - there seemed to be some confusion about their final destination, given that the British had nabbed what seemed to be the prime positions. "Timber!" cried a Royal Engineer as he chain-sawed a pine tree to clear an arc for one big gun.

"We're trying to dig the guns in for camouflage and concealment, and although they're white guns you can conceal them almost completely," said Sgt Mark Williams. "You wouldn't see anything." Once the earth bunkers are built, the soldiers will use the wood to fortify their positions.

By late afternoon, bulldozers had been deployed to accompany the pickazes and shovels, digging the pits for the 105mm guns, which fire a three-foot shell in a 10-mile range.

Most of the men seemed happy to be in the field. "They're artillerymen, and they are glad to be going out to do what they're trained for and deployed for," Col Applegate said. "There's a little bit of nervousness, obviously."

The French Foreign Legionnaires, driving tanks, VBLs (small armoured vehicles Mad Max would die for), lumbering armoured peronnel carriers, ammunition trucks and bulldozers had reached the foot of the mountain at dawn, driving in convoy without lights. But they had a lengthy delay at the first Bosnian army check-point on account of their non-UN plumage.

They were eventually allowed to pass, having pronounced UN white to be "the colour of surrender" and drove in flying the UN flag but free of the blue berets worn by the 42 French soldiers killed in the conflict so far. "It's different now," one said, glowering. "Forty-two dead, that's enough."

General Andre (acute e) Soubirou, who exchanged the blue beret he wore as a UN commander in Sarajevo last year for war-like black, stopped to chat to journalists waiting impatiently for his troops to arrive. "I have no sense of how the Serbs will respond," he said. "We hope to be a deterrent, and if necessary we will be ready to react."