Srebrenica victims airlifted to safety: Bosnian Muslims say no surrender unless UN stays in town - Serbs give peace-keepers 72-hour deadline

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A LITTLE girl and boy, both with tousled fair hair streaked with grime, were carried off a helicopter in Tuzla yesterday, the first in a wave of Muslims rescued by the United Nations from the besieged town of Srebrenica.

A tiny body wrapped in a soiled black bundle came next. A hand waving feebly in the air was the only sign of life. Many stretchers carried pale young men, Bosnian soldiers wounded in Srebrenica's unequal year-long struggle to hold off the advancing Serbs.

The children were the most heart-rending sight. Their owlish faces poked up from soiled bundles as they bounced along the airport tarmac on stretchers carried by brawny British and French UN soldiers. The faces of their exhausted mothers were streaked with tears.

These children are the deliberate targets of the Serbian campaign to 'cleanse' eastern Bosnia of its pre-war Muslim majority.

The UN plans to take 500 of the most seriously wounded from Srebrenica by helicopter in the next few days, at a rate of about 100 a day. The four French Pumas and two British Sea Kings can each carry only between 10-and 17 people. The flight time is short but there is a compulsory stopover in Serbian-held Zvornik, where helicopters are searched.

The UN is putting on a brave face, saying the overriding need is to get the wounded out of Srebrenica and into hospital in Tuzla. 'We can now guarantee the survival of Srebrenica. The agreement we reached was to demilitarise the town,' General Philippe Morillon, the UN commander in Bosnia, said in Sarajevo yesterday. 'With Bosnian defence forces disarmed, if the Serbs continued to subject Srebrenica to pressure and bombardment, this would be a direct attack on Unprofor (the UN force) and this is a guarantee it would not happen.'

But the UN is saving the lives of a few of the most seriously wounded at the price of abandoning the town to the Serbs. Only one month ago General Morillon went to Srebrenica and told the terrified population he would protect them. Yesterday the UN returned to oversee a surrender.

The French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, rejected comments by his Defence Minister, Francois Leotard, that the general was likely to be replaced by the end of the month, saying he would not be recalled.

On board a Royal Navy helicopter, Captain Mike Sanley carried a letter to Naser Oric, Srebrenica's Bosnian Muslim commander, containing details of a UN-Serb agreement. It calls on the Muslim fighters to hand over weapons to a force of 135 Canadian UN soldiers. It does not demand that the Serbs hand over weapons or guarantee the safety of civilians once the defenders are disarmed.

In Tuzla, Commander Hazim Sadic said Bosnian government forces in Srebrenica would not surrender to the UN unless it stationed peace-keepers there permanently. But there is little chance of the Serbs agreeing to that. Yesterday General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander, said the Serbs were happy for the UN to go into Srebrenica on one condition - that they disarm the Bosnian Muslims and get out within 72 hours.

The UN Security Council has given the Belgrade government seven days to persuade the Bosnian Serbs to sign a UN- and EC-sponsored peace plan, or face harsh new economic sanctions and international isolation. Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, said they would leave the international peace talks on Bosnia. The Bosnian Serb parliament would decide whether the walkout should be before or after UN sanctions go into effect next Monday.

John Major came under renewed pressure at home and abroad yesterday to agree to military intervention in Bosnia, despite the weekend adoption of the UN resolution. But while the Prime Minister and President Bill Clinton discussed informally in a 50-minute telephone conversation yesterday afternoon the 'pros and cons' of air strikes on supply lines and other possible action, no initiative emerged.

Signalling a significant shift among Mr Major's own backbenchers, David Howell and Sir Nicholas Bonsor, Conservative chairmen respectively of Commons select committees on foreign affairs and defence, said there had been a change of mood among Tory MPs and more decisive action was needed.