All-French heroes tell of ordeal

Emma Daly in Sarajevo talks to two sergeants who, defying Serb rebels, refused to quit their post
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The Independent Online
Two French NCOs who spent 22 days fending off Serb soldiers seeking hostages from a United Nations weapons site near Sarajevo said the worst moment was when France lost the Rugby World Cup semi-finals - and the Bosnian army shelled the site.

"We had a bottle of champagne to drink in case France won, but sadly we left it behind," Sergeant Luc Houzelot said with a smile. The two remained alone at Bare weapons collection point for three weeks after 16 comrades were ordered to leave by heavily armed Serb soldiers who said the Bosnian army was about to attack.

The platoon commander left Sgt Houzelot, 25, and Staff Sgt Gilles Vanuxem, 31, to guard weapons, radios and other equipment - and then found himself and the other 15 taken hostage by the rebel Serbs. The sergeants, stationed at two positions and armed mostly with fists, tried to go about their daily business despite repeated attempts to take them captive.

"Every day I got up at 6am to tour the position - there were a few things to consolidate, so I filled sandbags, or reinforced it with wood - and I observed the confrontation line," said Sgt Vanuxem, who spent all but the last two days at a sand-bagged bunker 400m from the wooden house where his comrade was.

"I spoke to the Serbs - that took up quite a lot of time," said Sgt Houzelot drily. Every day the Serbs told them to leave, and every day they refused, speaking through interpreters to the military police chief. "Sometimes we insulted them in French, but always with a friendly expression," Sgt Houzelot said. "It was a comfort."

The men had a field telephone line - which the Serbs cut last Thursday, at the start of the Bosnian offensive - and Sgt Houzelot had a radio link to his captain in Sarajevo. French UN officials issued daily bulletins on the two.

They had rations enough for 20 men for two months, plenty of water and two generators to run the satellite television system, for the news - which carried updates on their plight - and, of course, the rugby. "Sometimes it was boring, but we had books, The 39 Steps," said Sgt Houzelot, who worked his way through an "excellent" John Buchan anthology.

The Serbs never fired at the two, but pointed guns in their direction and threatened them, particularly when they noticed Sgt Houzelot making repeated trips to his vehicle, interspersed with sounds of destruction from his house. He had received orders over the vehicle's radio to destroy all sensitive equipment, such as radio-scrambling devices, and was confronted by armed Serbs. He elbowed them aside. "It was not boxing, it was rugby," Sgt Vanuxem said.

But, despite their insouciance, the men chain-smoked while recounting the story, their hands trembling occasionally, and it is clear the atmosphere was ugly. Around 10 military policemen guarded each site, backed by at least 30 soldiers and several tanks; their reluctance to harm the men is attributed by the sergeants to the publicity about their case. "They did not dare," Sgt Vanuxem said.

And, said his comrade, "there was a certain respect" for their status as professional soldiers trying to conduct a mission - one the UN has cancelled for now, having withdrawn all troops from Serb-held weapons collection points on Sunday.

The most dangerous time was on Thursday when the Bosnian army, believing Bare to have been cleansed of peace-keepers, shelled it, destroying a tank beside Sgt Vanuxem's post.

The Serbs finally agreed to let Sgt Vanuxem join his comrade, as the house had a cellar in which they could shelter from Bosnian shelling. "We kissed but it was not very pleasant because of the sergeant's beard," Sgt Houzelot said with a grin.

Thirty-six hours later, a UN contingent arrived to rescue the men - and the weapons they had kept hidden - but the sergeants, knowing the Serbs had stolen French uniforms, were leery. "We were not sure whether they were actually French until we recognised the senior NCO," Sgt Vanuxem said.

Neither plans to follow in the footsteps of Captain Scott O'Grady, the Nato pilot doing chat shows after being shot down over Serb-held Bosnia. "He is American; we are French," they said, acknow- ledging, at least, that they are famous.