Italy leads the way with offers of hospital beds

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THE AIRLIFT of the injured from Sarajevo could spread to other embattled towns in the former Yugoslavia. The UN was inundated yesterday with offers of beds. Italy led, promising 454 beds for injured refugees from Sarajevo, enough to clear the Bosnian government lists of all those who need to be airlifted out of the battle zone, UN officials said.

The surge of offers followed the evacuation of refugees including 21 adults and children to Britain and in effect put Operation Irma and any further airlifts from Sarajevo 'on hold'. Mostar and Tuzla may be next on the list for help, said Sylvana Foa, spokeswoman in Geneva for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

By yesterday afternoon, the UN said it had been offered more than 560 hospital places in 15 countries in response to its plea earlier in the day - what it had needed for the past 16 months, said Ms Foa. 'It has turned night into day for us,' she said.

Britain said it was prepared to offer more NHS beds to the injured in Sarajevo, but officials believe the gesture by Italy will take the pressure off Britain. Brian Mawhinney, Minister of State for Health, said Britain was awaiting the outcome of assessments being made in Sarajevo by a doctor from the Overseas Development Administration.

He stressed Britain would be co-ordinating further action with other countries. The emphasis could shift towards putting medical teams into Sarajevo, he hinted. He also rejected suggestions that the public would resent NHS queue-jumping by Bosnian refugees. Dr Mawhinney said: 'The heart of the nation has been touched. It wants us to respond and I believe that by and large people support the action we have taken. The health service can accommodate and treat more evacuees.' Dr Mawhinney refused to put a figure on the number of beds that would be made available but he denied that having taken the lead Britain was now lagging behind other countries.

The scramble to help the Bosnia refugees was seen by British officials as justification for John Major's intervention, and the priority given to children evacuated to Britain.

Senior Tory MPs showed their anger yesterday at the UN criticism of the British policy. Michael Colvin, chairman of the backbench foreign affairs committee, attacked criticism by Patrick Peillod, the French doctor who is head of the UNHCR medical evacuation committee in Sarajevo. Mr Colvin said the principle of 'women and children first' for a 'sinking ship' should be applied to further evacuations from Sarajevo. 'If there is a sinking ship, Sarajevo is it,' Mr Colvin said on BBC radio. 'I don't think you can bring out men because they can be thought to be belligerents. They could lead to the aircraft being targeted by Serb gunners.'

Mark Lawson, page 18