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A busy trade in lives and insults

TWO DUSTY buses yesterday reached their destination in Sarajevo - a desolate car-park surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by several United Nations armoured personnel carriers. The first UN-supervised exchange of prisoners in Bosnia was a tense affair. From the surrounding hills, Serbian forces lobbed shells into a nearby suburb, sending up clouds of black smoke from buildings hit in the attack.

The 'prisoners' were Serbs and Muslims offered up by both warring sides in Sarajevo. The first bus, escorted by wary Serbian soldiers, brought 36 Muslims and Croats who had been held in the Serbian barracks at Lukavica, just outside the city. The second bus, escorted by Bosnian forces, carried 36 Serbs.

The two buses, escorted by heavily armed UN peace-keepers, pulled up side by side. The exchange took place under a thunderous sky. The Serbs filed silently out of their bus, each carrying their possessions in a plastic bag. The Muslims and Croats followed suit. The two groups waited silently on the asphalt, not looking at each other, before boarding the bus that would escort them away from the homes where they had spent most of their lives - perhaps for ever.

The Bosnian side complained loudly that its Serbian opponents abused the prisoner-exchange system. 'We offer snipers and criminals who are all up on serious military charges and the Serbians send us old-age pensioners who never did anything,' said a Bosnian soldier.

The charge appeared to have some substance. Among the Muslim and Croatian prisoners were several old women in headscarves, who looked bewildered.

A 30-year-old Serb, awaiting release by the Bosnians, leant out of the window of the bus. He said he had not been mistreated during his 12-day stay in a Bosnian jail in Sarajevo. But he looked confused. 'I have no idea where we are being taken,' he said.

Behind the barbed wire, a small but hostile crowd of local residents shouted angrily at the UN soldiers. 'Hitler never did to any country in Europe what the Serbs are doing to us,' shouted Memnuna Pasic, a housewife. She was in tears after discovering that her 23-year-old nephew was not on the bus from Lukavica, even though his name was said to be on the exchange list. 'The Americans and the European Community care nothing about the fate of Muslims in Sarajevo,' she added. 'We have been left to rot in the biggest ghetto in the world.'

When UN forces set up their headquarters in Sarajevo earlier this year, local residents greeted them as potential liberators from Serbian attacks. Now they feel angry and betrayed. UN troops stand by helplessly while the remorseless bombardment of Sarajevo by Serbian forces continues. The UN claims its forces are powerless to intervene: their mandate covers only the delivery of humanitarian aid to the city.