End of the road for UN's Bosnia lifeline

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ZENICA - At least one and a half million people in central Bosnia face starvation this winter, as their only food lifeline is likely to remain closed, writes Christopher Bellamy.

Two key bridges on the Mostar road into central Bosnia which were blown up during fighting will take three months to repair, the United Nations said yesterday. Its convoys need to move at least 3,000 tonnes of food a month to the region to feed the starving. The only alternative is a mountain road through the town of Gornji Vakuf, which is also closed because of fierce fighting.

British Royal Engineers had hoped to put a modular bridge over two spans of the Bijela bridge, north of Mostar. But the remaining three spans of that bridge and another bridge, 800 metres to the north, were blown two weeks ago, and reconnaissance patrols have now established that it will take three months to repair them, sounding the death-knell for the UN's operation lifeline.

The Bosnian Croat HVO militia warned that any vehicles moving on the UN's route would be fired on. Tanks of the Light Dragoons from Tomislavgrad, moving north towards the HVO checkpoint on the Makljen bridge, were told to stop or be fired on.

The Coldstream Guards, pushing down from the north, were similarly warned not to attempt to negotiate the embattled town of Gornji Vakuf. Heavy machine-gun rounds flew across the road all day.

Closing the route so firmly is an almost unprecedented move. No UN aid is moving up the road, and because the army in Vitez has 30 days of supplies, the British feel no need to try to force a way through.