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Croats destroy Mostar's historic bridge

THE STARI MOST, Mostar's spectacular 16th-century stone bridge and one of Bosnia-Herzegovina's greatest architectural treasures, collapsed yesterday in a barrage of Croatian shells. It was a moment Bosnians, particularly those under siege in east Mostar, had prayed would never happen.

For at least 25,000 Bosnians trapped on the city's east side the collapse is a disaster - a tremendous blow to morale and a strategic victory for the Croats.

The bridge was the only access to a source of drinking water which people retrieved by scurrying across at night under threat of sniper fire. It was also the main route to the places where the front line crossed into west 'Croatian' Mostar.

Built in 1566, supposedly with mortar made from egg whites, the 66ft Stari Most was the last and most treasured of seven across the Neretva river gorge. It was once compared with a 'rainbow rising up to the Milky Way' and was included in the United Nations list of worldwide cultural heritage. But the war turned it into a battle-scarred monument to the gap between the Croats and Muslims fighting for Mostar.

Many considered it a miracle the delicate Ottoman bridge had survived so long. Pitted by sniper and mortar fire, its steep arch was festooned with old car tyres in a futile attempt at protection. The bridge had taken dozens of hits during the past 19 months, but gave way when 60 Croatian shells rained down on it yesterday.

Veso Vegar, the spokesman for the Bosnian Croat Defence Council (HVO) in Mostar, said it probably collapsed on its own.

The only bridge now connecting east and west Mostar is a rickety rope and wood plank suspension affair close to Croatian positions and within easy range of snipers. Some Croatian sources said the Stari Most was destroyed in response to a string of defeats the Bosnian army has inflicted on the HVO in central Bosnia.

Croatian enclaves round Vitez and Busovaca in central Bosnia were yesterday braced for a final assault by the Bosnian army. Alarmed by the collapse of Croatian defences round Vares, and by the loss on Saturday of Zaborje, a village guarding the approach to an explosives factory, Croats fear the worst. A Bosnian army spokesman hoped Vitez and Busovaca would fall 'before winter'.

In Sarajevo, dead and wounded children littered a playground and classroom when mortars wreaked havoc on an infant school. Nine children died in the city's worst carnage since Muslims rejected the Bosnian peace plan in late September.

About 40 casualties from the school and a nearby bread queue were taken to hospital with serious shrapnel and blast wounds. Bosnian radio implied Serbian gunners launched the attack.

Balkans aren't all bad, page 18

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