'This is the end of the world': Mostar, 'held to ransom' by Croats, faces starvation as Muslim leader urges rejection of Bosnia peace deal

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AS THE United Nations warned yesterday that Muslims in the southern Bosnian city of Mostar were in imminent danger of death by starvation, the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, said he would recommend the rejection of the peace settlement proposed for his republic in Geneva last week.

UN officials said scores of Bosnian Muslims are likely to starve to death within five days in Mostar unless Croatian forces lift their blockade on humanitarian aid convoys. They reported that up to 55,000 people, including 30,000 refugees, were trapped in the eastern half of the city, where there is no running water or electricity, and where Muslim-Croat fighting has made two out of every three buildings uninhabitable.

The Bosnian Croat army, the HVO, which is armed and supplied by Croatia, controls the western half of Mostar and has refused permission for relief convoys to enter the Muslim eastern sector since 15 June. 'The population in eastern Mostar is being held to ransom by the HVO. The attitude of the HVO in blocking the convoys is completely unacceptable,' said Lyndall Sachs, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), speaking in Sarajevo.

Doctors in the makeshift hospital of the besieged Muslim quarter of Mostar urged the UN yesterday to evacuate desperately wounded patients if it cannot deliver regular medical supplies. A small shipment of medicines was delivered on Saturday, but the UN has no guarantee that further supplies will be allowed in.

'The HVO blockade is the main problem, and if the blockade continues the only answer will be to evacuate the most serious patients,' said the chief doctor at the hospital. 'We have 10-15 patients whose arms and legs have been amputated who need prostheses and long-term physical rehabilitation. We also have a few medical emergencies.'

The hospital's most pressing medical cases are a brother and sister, aged eight and nine, who were seriously wounded by a Croatian shell while playing in their garden on Friday. The two are lying heavily sedated in a makeshift intensive care unit in the hospital's cellar. Selma Handzar's right arm has been amputated and she also has serious head and face wounds and a badly damaged knee. Her brother Mirza is at risk of losing his right leg, after several blood vessels were severed by shrapnel.

'This is the end of the world, the end of Western civilisation, as you can see,' said Dr Kenan Arnautovic, a neuro-surgeon from Sarajevo who made the dangerous trip to Mostar on foot and by mule. 'If medical evacuation makes sense in Sarajevo, it makes sense in Mostar as well.'

Ms Sachs said that a UNHCR representative had toured eastern Mostar for two hours on Saturday and had described conditions as exceptionally severe: 'The food situation is desperate. The local authorities said that if no food convoys get in within five days, then we are going to see death by starvation. The UNHCR representative does not believe that this is an exaggeration.'

Ms Sachs said 60-70 per cent of the Mostar area had been rendered uninhabitable. The only water in the town was from the river Neretva, and snipers shot at people when they went there to collect it. People were chopping up their furniture to try to cook food or boil water.

The UNHCR believes that it could arrange a food convoy to eastern Mostar within 24 hours if the Croatian forces gave their approval.

Muslim-Croat battles erupted in Mostar on 9 May. The Croats declared the city last year to be the capital of the self-styled Bosnian Croat state, but the Muslims were determined to wrest control of Mostar so that it would be included in the rump Muslim state expected to emerge from the Geneva peace talks.

Bosnian Croat military units forced Muslim women, children and old people into eastern Mostar in June, while they arrested thousands of Muslim men of military age and herded them into detention centres near the city. About 2,000 men are being held at a helicopter port at Rodoc.

Bosnian Muslim MPs and other leaders are to meet - probably on Friday - in the central town of Zenica to discuss the Geneva peace plan, which retains the principle of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a single state but sets up three autonomous regions. The plan would give the Serbs 50 per cent of Bosnia's territory, the Muslims 32 per cent and the Croats 17 per cent, and put Sarajevo under a UN governor and Mostar under European Community supervision.

Mr Izetbegovic said yesterday that the plan would award the Serbs too much territory in northern and eastern Bosnia, thus rewarding ethnic cleansing.

Hostility to Geneva plan 6

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