West air-drops food for Muslims: US aircraft shower besieged Mostar with 13,000 ration packs after lorry convoy is blocked by Croats

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS of ration packs were air-dropped to the starving Bosnian Muslims besieged by Croats in eastern Mostar last night, the United States Air Force announced early today.

The drops were in response to a 'last resort' appeal to the Western allies by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) after attempts to get a 19-lorry aid convoy through to Mostar had been blocked by Bosnian Croat forces who reneged on earlier promises. 'We're at the end of our rope. We have tried through every means possible to get assistance into Mostar and have been stymied at every turn,' said a UNHCR spokesman.

'Two US Air Force C-130 cargo planes successfully dropped 13,440 military rations to Mostar,' said a spokesman at the US Rhein-Main airbase in Frankfurt. The packaged meals were pushed out of the back of the C-130s in large boxes that opened up in mid-air to allow the packages to fall to earth separately. US officials said there was too much risk that the usual practice of dropping pallets of food would injure people on the ground. No aid has reached the city for more than two months and UN staff say people there are already dying from 'bad nutrition'.

There were reports for several hours in advance that the Western allies would drop food for the first time to the Muslim enclave in Mostar, but US officials said nothing until the operation was over. 'Planes can get shot at if you announce it in advance,' an official said. Another spokesman said Mostar has been identified by UN officials as the 'No 1 priority', adding that air-drops to the city are expected to continue.

The air-relief operation went ahead despite reports that Muslim and Croatian commanders in the Mostar area had agreed last night to a ceasefire and an exchange of soldiers' bodies, clearing the way for the relief convoy to get into the city today.

In Mostar, fighting between Muslims and Croats started at 6am yesterday and raged for at least 10 hours. Several dozen civilians, including five children, were killed, according to Bosnian Muslim radio. Earlier, Bosnian Croat radio said 40 Muslim soldiers died trying to prevent Croats taking over a dam near the city.

The convoy of aid lorries, which was loaded with 200 tons of supplies, including enough food for seven days, had been intended to reach Mostar from Croatian-held areas in south- western Bosnia yesterday. The UNHCR received permission for the operation on Monday from leaders of the Bosnian Croat armed forces, the HVO, which have blocked all aid to eastern Mostar since 15 June.

However, when the convoy reached the town of Medjugorje, the Croats demanded that the UN send aid to their sector of Mostar as well, said Lyndall Sachs, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Sarajevo. 'The Bosnian Croats just said: 'Sorry guys, we've changed our minds. Now we want stuff for the west too.' '

The UNHCR duly sent a further four lorries with aid for the Croatian side, but those were blocked in the southern Croatian town of Metkovic, said Ms Sachs. 'They (the Bosnian Croats) are just playing with us, and they will go on playing with us while these people suffer more and more.'

Local authorities in Mostar say that 55,000 Muslims, including 30,000 refugees, are trapped in the eastern part of the city. The sector has no electricity or running water, and at its makeshift hospital - the basement of an office building that was hit by mortar fire again yesterday - doctors do operations with little or no anaesthetic. About two in every three buildings have been rendered uninhabitable since 9 May, when the Muslims and Croats, formerly allies against the Serbs, started their battle for control of Mostar.

Jerrie Hulme, UNHCR office head in Medjugorje, said there were 'undoubtedly people who are already dying because of bad nutrition'.

HVO forces control the western half of the city and are determined to hold on: last night the Bosnian Croats rejected the international protectorate status for Mostar envisaged by the Geneva peace plan, and declared a Croatian republic with Mostar as the capital. But the Croats' political leader, Mate Boban, later watered down that hard-line stance, saying he would accept a two-year EC mandate if there were guarantees that Mostar subsequently became the Croatian state capital.

Croatian authorities are still blocking other aid convoys trying to deliver food, medicine and fuel to Sarajevo and the central Bosnian towns of Zenica and Jablanica. Lorries have been delayed for a week at Metkovic, and Ms Sachs said HVO leaders had refused to say why.

Refugees in limbo, page 5

Peace-keeping conundrum, page 6

(Photograph omitted)