Sarajevo rescue mission snowballs: Britain offers further flights - Row with UN after doctors find young victims not on evacuation list

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The Independent Online
A DISPUTE broke out between Britain and the United Nations yesterday over a hastily arranged airlift aimed at getting some of the most critical victims of the siege of Sarajevo into Western hospitals.

The UN has approved 41 people for immediate medical evacuation from Sarajevo, but a British doctor said some more deserving cases were not on the list. Especially controversial was the discovery that it contained only four children.

Britain reacted to the confusion by offering further flights - especially for children - in addition to the one expected to airlift 17 wounded people from Sarajevo tomorrow.

Yesterday the international momentum to help war victims continued to grow - last night Finland announced it would take 100 patients from Sarajevo, Ireland is to double its intake from 5 to 10, and Israel said it was ready to treat wounded children.

The Prime Minister was privately reported to be furious that most of the proposed evacuees on the UN list were adults. John Major immediately ordered the Foreign Office to seek early clarification of the list and to find out what had gone wrong, sources said.

But Sylvana Foa, spokeswoman for the UN High Commmisioner for Refugees, defended her agency's decisions last night. 'We cannot make Sarajevo into a supermarket where people come and pick and say we'll have one of those and one of those and one of those,' she told Channel 4.

A team of 12 RAF doctors who have gone to Sarajevo discovered critically ill children who are not on the list of 41 Bosnians to be flown out as part of a mission inspired by Irma Hadzimuratovic, brought to London earlier this week.

Dr Andy Mitchell, an RAF Wing Commander, was visibly moved as he visited a children's ward in Sarajevo's Kosevo Hospital. 'I've just seen a little three-year-old girl, another Irma really. I think she needs to be evacuated . . . I want this child back. We could take her. I want to get her on Sunday's flight.' He named her as Belma Shalaka, saying she 'has meningitis and she is not responding to therapy. She is building fluid on the brain.'

The mother of a small boy also not on the list pleaded with Dr Mitchell for her son to be given treatment in the West. Curly-haired Adis Advic is a paraplegic at the age of five. A Serbian grenade exploded on a football pitch behind the family house on 30 April, showering his spine with crippling chunks of shrapnel.

Yesterday he played quietly with coloured building blocks, legs dangling limply, while his mother, Amila, begged Dr Mitchell to intervene with the British authorities. 'I know there is hope for him,' she said. 'This is my only child. There is still some movement in his legs.'

Dr Mitchell said the bureaucratic UN procedure which left Irma dying in a dark windswept ward in Sarajevo should be changed. And he called on hospitals in Britain to offer more beds.

Downing Street said that the UK is 'discussing urgently with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees whether the list of patients they have identified is comprehensive, given the uncertainty and conflicting reports about the medical conditions of others who have been injured in Sarajevo, particularly children.

'The figures originally given by the UNHCR to the British and Swedish governments were that 41 cases had been identified, half of whom were children,' it said.

A UNHCR spokeswoman in Geneva said last night that a main consideration in selecting patients for evacuation was whether their condition was stable enough to travel, not age. 'A baby with fluid on its brain could not maybe survive a trip in an unpressurised C-130 Hercules. We have to be very careful we don't kill children when we move them.

'A young doctor who has never been in a war zone, who spends two hours in Sarajevo, should not contradict the decisions of 18 or 19 doctors who have very carefully put together the list of those most needy for evacuation.'

Official concern about the lack of children on the list will add to accusations that the whole operation is geared more to public relations than helping the injured of Bosnia.

A team of 25 specialist doctors and nurses left Stansted airport yesterday evening bound for Ancona, Italy, to pick up the wounded to be ferried there from Sarajevo. They professed not to have heard that most of their potential passengers were adults.

RAF pilots are due to fly the sick Sarajevans on the first leg of their journey in an C-130 Hercules, landing at Ancona this weekend.

Bosnian doctors are pleased that a lucky few have a chance to escape from Sarajevo. But there has been sharp criticism of the behaviour of the Medical Evacuation Committee in the city, and of the way the panel of UN doctors met infrequently and sat on cases for months - until the case of Irma exploded in their faces.

The Bosnian Health Minister, Mustafa Beganovic, said yesterday that at least 600 patients deserved to be evacuated from Sarajevo. 'Over 430 have not even had their cases reviewed by the panel,' he said.

Irma Hadzimuratovic, who suffered spinal, abdominal and head wounds in a mortar attack in Sarajevo, was yesterday still in a critical condition at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, central London.

Lifeline to Sarajevo, page 8

Leading article, page 14

Letters, page 15

(Photograph omitted)