British troops reopen Bosnia aid lifeline

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The Independent Online
EMERGENCY aid convoys at last reached civilians suffering from cold and hunger in Bosnia yesterday, the first delivery of food in the region for a month. But United Nations officials said the convoys were only a small step towards helping the one and a half million civilians trapped by the fighting.

UN relief convoys arrived in Zenica and Travnik, and three aid convoys from Belgrade reached the Muslim enclaves of Tuzla, Zepce and Srebrenica, said a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Our convoy had left Tomislavgrad at 6.30am, and had reached Vitez, where more than 800 British troops are based, by 4pm. We came from the north through no man's land, around Gornji Vakuf, driving as fast as we dared on the icy roads to avoid the odd renegade sniper bullet. The Bosnian Croat HVO army had agreed to let convoys through; the Muslims wanted the aid, desperately. The soldiers manning the HVO checkpoint on the Makljen ridge - a possible future border between Bosnian Croat and Muslim mini-states - just lifted the barrier.

The operation followed the agreement between the commander of the British forces working for the UN in Bosnia, Brigadier John Reith, and Lieutenant-General Ante Roso, a distinguished Croatian officer who commanded the defence of Dubrovnik and who is now chief of the HVO. British Royal Military Police in fluorescent smocks joined the HVO at the checkpoints along the route yesterday morning and the HVO moved with smartness and precision. The agreement and the way it was implemented yesterday showed that General Roso was a man whose orders are obeyed and whom the UN commanders - in this case the British - can do business with.

The 55 vehicles in the British convoy - Scimitar light tanks, ambulances, recovery vehicles and, most crucial and most vulnerable, 36 trucks carrying the UN aid - were not the only convoy on the route yesterday.

Clearing the HVO checkpoints on the Makljen ridge and at the top of the tortuous route over the mountains, through which the Royal Engineers have carved a remarkably serviceable highway, there were more British UN trucks carrying fuel, followed by other UN vehicles.

Then, at the checkpoint at the bottom of the mountain road, a Dutch convoy was waiting to head up the newly opened route. The whole artery, it seemed, had sprung to life again, full of vehicles intent on bringing salvation to people in central Bosnia.

The British garrisons in Vitez and Gornji Vakuf had been cut off just as they were expecting crucial winter supplies - winter clothing and special experimental winter tracks for the Warrior fighting vehicles.

It remains to be seen whether yesterday's co-operation was a temporary expedient, with the HVO using the British to reopen a main supply route used by themselves and the UN, or whether it presages a new era in relations between UN forces and the local militias, who are, like everyone else, sick of this war.

Photograph, page 14