French humiliation sparks battle of Vrbanja bridge

IT WAS a stunning display of contempt for the blue berets, and it provoked a furious response from the French peace-keepers - the first combat mission ever undertaken by UN troops in Bosnia, writes Emma Daly in Sarajevo. After the fighting died down early yesterday six soldiers were dead, two French and four Serb.

Serb soldiers posing as French troops had captured two UN observation posts at either end of the front-line Vrbanja bridge in Sarajevo, without firing a shot. They wore French uniforms, flak jackets and helmets, were armed with French weapons and drove a French armoured personnel carrier (APC) - all stolen from UN troops detained outside Sarajevo.

The surprise was complete. The Serbs simply approached the posts, entered and disarmed the 12 peace-keepers at gunpoint. Ten were taken to an unknown destination while two remained on the bridge as human shields. One was later hit by sniper fire - possibly Bosnian. The Serbs allowed the UN to evacuate him.

"It was very quick, so the French had no time to call their headquarters," said a UN spokesman. "The HQ, having heard nothing from them for 30 minutes, sent an officer to investigate. As he reached the post he saw the Serbs there, made a quick U-turn and returned to raise the alarm."

For the French, who have endured countless humiliations and more than a dozen dead at the hands of the Bosnian Serbs, it was a bridge too far. Thirty troops, backed by six light tanks, stormed the northern end of the bridge yesterday morning, under fire from snipers, mortar bombs and machine-guns.

One Frenchman was killed in the fighting, and another died in a nearby observation post struck by Serb gunfire. Five Frenchmen were wounded, one seriously. One observation post was recaptured, but the Serbs remained in control of the southern end of the bridge. Four Serbs died in the fighting, three were injured and four were taken prisoner.

Yesterday afternoon calm had returned around the bridge, although the atmosphere remained tense. UN officers were in contact with Serbs to discuss swapping the Serb prisoners for more than 200 UN troops detained by the Serbs and 16 unarmed military observers used as human shields against further Nato air strikes.