Chosen few Bosnians fly to Britain: RAF rescues 21 war victims in face of UN anger as Serb leader claims siege is over

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TWENTY-ONE sick and wounded Bosnians, including seven children, arrived in Britain yesterday after the Government's Operation Irma airlifted them from Sarajevo.

Suffering from injuries including lost limbs and destroyed faces, and ranging in age from nine months to over 40 years, the patients were flown out of the besieged Bosnian capital by the RAF under sniper fire and shuttled last night to hospitals all over Britain for the specialist treatment that Sarajevo is unable to provide.

Yet even as they left, the controversy over 'Operation Irma' continued, with UN officials accusing the Government of a public relations exercise.

Michael Meacher, Labour's overseas development spokesman, said the Government should have been routinely airlifting emergency cases months ago. It had treated Operation Irma as 'a tombola', with children as prizes.

The UN should threaten air strikes in the event of a resumption of shelling of Sarajevo or any other 'safe haven' or further attempts to disrupt humanitarian convoys, Mr Meacher said. Only a more forceful policy could ensure hospitals did not run short of medical supplies or of diesel to generate electricity.

But Douglas Hogg, the Foreign Office Minister, insisted the Government had met a particular need that everyone agreed had to be met, and pledged that Britain was ready, with other countries, to take out more emergency cases, although Downing Street said last night there are no immediate plans to do so.

There was no doubt about the need of the pitiful group brought out of Sarajevo airport in an RAF Hercules and flown to Ancona in southern Italy, and then on to London in a Russian Tu-154 air ambulance chartered by the Overseas Development Administration. Nine of them were stretcher cases.

Among the adults, Senad Mirvic, 27, has had half his face destroyed; Sabahudin Hastor, 23, who has had one leg amputated, has serious injuries to the other; Dvezad Dedovic, 29, has had his right lower arm amputated and injuries to both eyes.

Last night, however, media attention was focusing on the seven children in the party, following the case of five-year- old Irma Hadzimuratovic, whose suffering spurred yesterday's operation.

Belma Salaka, three, who like Irma has meningitis, was admitted to the Hospital for Sick Children, in Great Ormond Street, London, where Irma was still in a critical but stable condition last night.

Tony Redmond, leader of the operation's medical team, said Belma would have died within days if she had stayed in Bosnia: 'I am extremely pleased we got her out when we did. She's causing great concern.'

Edhem Dedovic, an 11-year-old boy whose left eye was gouged out by shrapnel, waved to journalists and well-wishers as he walked on to the tarmac at Heathrow before being being taken by ambulance to University College Hospital, London. Nine-month-old Eldar Kalamujic, who has liver disease and complications that put him at risk from sudden internal bleeding, is being treated at King's College Hospital, south London.

As the operation began yesterday the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, said in an interview on Sarajevo radio that he thought peace talks would resume in Geneva today as Serbian forces, monitored by UN troops, were completing their withdrawal from the stratgeic heights outside the city.

The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, claimed Sarajevo was 'no longer under siege' and peace talks could resume with realistic hope of a settlement. 'Shells are not falling on Sarajevo and convoys with humanitarian aid are entering unhindered,' he said.

The city's airport, however, still seemed very much a war zone as the evacuees boarded the RAF aircraft to the crackle of small arms fire and occasional bursts from heavy machine-guns. Before take-off, four high-velocity sniper rounds were fired near by.

At Ancona the party transferred to the Russian jet for the journey to Britain, some of them bewildered, others weeping.

At the front of the aircraft the most seriously ill, the children Belma and Eldar, were given their own flying intensive care unit. Belma remained oblivious to the care team's efforts as she clung to life on a ventilator under heavy sedation. She lay face up on the floor of the jet, surrounded by drip lines, wires and the faint blue light from the screens of monitoring equipment.

A few feet away Eldar cried aloud with his mother, Zehra, and brother Kenan, four, at his side.

Dr Redmond said he had tried to turn the jet into a flying hospital offering the patients and relatives an oasis of calm from the terror they had endured.

He said: 'Many of the people we are flying out appear to be coping well with the situation but have underlying psychological scars.

'They are all leaving the sort of conditions which are scarcely imaginable to people back home in Britain. It will be difficult for them to adjust to being surrounded by people who want to save their lives and care for them rather than kill them.'

Another 18 injured people flew to Sweden direct from Sarajevo yesterday. the Irish Republic stands ready to take others in a flight expected early this week.

Hospitals open doors 7

Leading article, letters 17

(Photograph omitted)