Defiant Serbs keep six Britons hostage

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The Independent Online

in Belgrade

The 17 British soldiers from the Royal Welch Fusiliers captured by the Bosnian Serbs nearly two weeks ago were due to arrive at Split airport last night after travelling from Belgrade via Zagreb.

But six Britons are still being held and are among 145 United Nations peace-keepers still effectively held hostage by the Bosnian Serbs. In an act of defiance after they reluctantly set free 108 hostages early yesterday, Bosnian Serb forces seized a tank and a heavy gun from United Nations control in the Bosnian capital and after two weeks of relative calm the Sarajevo valley once again rang to the crash of tank fire and the sharp bang of outgoing mortar bombs.

Much of the shooting in the past 10 days has been directed at the road over Mount Igman, threatening traffic on the only land route into the city. No aid convoys have entered Sarajevo for more than two weeks, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is concerned about shortages of food in the city, where aid stocks are exhausted.

A UN delegation plans to visit Pale, the Bosnian Serb "capital", today to demand access to Sarajevo for aid convoys. But UNHCR did receive Serb clearance to send aid to the three eastern enclaves of Zepa, Srebrenica and Gorazde.

Questioned about the condition of the British soldiers, Ivor Roberts, the charge d'affaires at the British embassy in Belgrade, said their main complaint was that they had been given only bread and thin soup, during their 11 days of captivity.

All that changed once they arrived at a modest holiday site in Novi Sad for a rest before being transferred to Zagreb. "They tucked into a huge breakfast of meat soup, roast lamb, roast veal, roast potatoes, the full works, and they destroyed that pretty comprehensively," Mr Roberts said.

He declined to say if the Bosnian Serbs had forced any British soldiers to act as human shields against Nato air strikes, but commented: "They are all in good spirits and in good heart."

A shocking tale emerged from the freed Spanish major, Manuel Cortes Mendez. He told reporters that he had been forced to sit every day on the runway at the Bosnian Serb-held airport at Banja Luka, 120 miles north of Sarajevo.

Three more Unprofor officers - from Brazil, France and Spain - were released yesterday and President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia said the remaining peace-keepers, including five Royal Welch Fusiliers, would be freed "in the next few days".

Meanwhile, defence officials from Britain, France and the Netherlands made a formal presentation of proposals for bolstering the Bosnia protection force to the UN secretariat in New York.