UN fears aid aircraft was shot down by missile

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The Independent Online
UNITED NATIONS sources suspect that an Italian aid aircraft that crashed 18 miles from Sarajevo yesterday was shot down by a ground-to-air missile near the Serbian-Croatian front lines east of the Bosnian capital. A United Nations official in Sarajevo said that the four-man crew of the aircaft had been killed.

'All four members of the Italian plane crew are dead,' a French lieutenant with the UN Protection Force in Sarajevo said. He said a helicopter from a US warship in the Adriatic spotted the wreckage, which was then reached by rescuers in a French armoured personnel carrier.

'The helicopter was not able to land because of shooting,' he said, without elaborating on who was fighting in an area that is believed to be under the control of Croats and Muslims.

The Italian G-222 aircraft was carrying five tons of blankets from the Croatian coastal city of Split to the besieged Bosnian capital when it lost radio contact shortly after 1pm, eight minutes before it was due to land. A US Awacs aircraft recorded the disappearance of the Italian plane in the mountains east of Sarajevo and all UN relief flights to the city were immediately suspended.

The crashed aircraft was carrying a four-man Italian crew and four French passengers. Officially, UN spokesmen in Zagreb and Sarajevo claimed there were 'no indications that would point to the intentional downing of the aircraft', but reports from the region of the crash spoke of witnesses who had allegedly seen a missile fired at the time of the plane's disappearance.

Sources in Zagreb said they had reason to believe the plane might have been shot down by anti-aircraft fire or by a missile but did not disclose if there was any evidence to support this contention.

Two weeks ago, Serbian artillery radar locked on to a British Hercules transport aircraft as it left Sarajevo airport, but the location of the crash site means that if the Italian plane was indeed shot down, Croatian forces might be to blame.

There have been rumours in Zagreb that Croatian military officers suspected the UN relief flights to Sarajevo were being used as 'shadows' for military aircraft of undisclosed nationality flying arms for the Serbs into Sarajevo along UN air-lanes at the same time as the relief flights. However, a UN official last night dismissed these reports as nonsense because UN troops in Sarajevo would have reported any such unauthorised flights.

Nineteen countries have been taking part in the UN airlift to Sarajevo, carrying 12,000 tons of food, medicine and other relief supplies over the past two months; on Wednesday the UN flew its 1,000th sortie into the city.

Meanwhile in Belgrade, Milan Panic, Prime Minister of the rump Yugoslav state, vowed yesterday to dismiss all Serbian politicians identified with the war, saying they were liars and con-men.

If it were proven that the aircraft was shot down by Serbs, it would strengthen Mr Panic's hand against those Serbian leaders who seem to want to carry on the war regardless of world opinion.