Bridge extends power link to Bosnia: UN military engineers have reopened the Mostar Road, writes Christopher Bellamy, Defence Correspondent

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The Independent Online
THE MOSTAR Road, the only all-weather road linking the sea with Sarajevo and central Bosnia, is open again after a year and a half. And yesterday - the 80th anniversary of the Sarajevo assassination which sparked the First World War - the British commander of the UN's south-western sector in Bosnia led a convoy of 37 vehicles carrying 250 tons of essential parts to help reconstruct the national power grid in Bosnia.

Operation 'Rubber Duck' began at 7.30am yesterday when the convoy left the huge UN depot in Metkovic, just inside Croatia. It was stopped by Bosnian Croats between Mostar and the Bijela bridge but Brigadier Andrew Ridgway, leading the UN convoy, negotiated it through by threatening to close the new Bijela bridge if they refused to let the UN pass.

The convoy included vehicles from Canadian and British UN logistic battalions. The equipment has been in Croatia for about a year. Following three days of intense negotiations, the convoy was allowed to move yesterday.

The Bosnian Croats are now allied with the Muslims and the convoy was delayed because of the usual problems with passage of information, and because the Bosnian Croat HVO was 'being difficult', the Army said.

The convoy carried on towards Sarajevo, turning off along the UN's route 'Gannet', to Konjic, Kiseljak and its final destination, Kakanj, which it reached in mid- afternoon.

Brigadier Ridgway's headquarters is in Gornji Vakuf, which until February was right on the Muslim-Croat front line. From here, he commands a British, a Spanish, a Malaysian, and a Canadian battalion group. The other British battalion group is mostly in Gorazde, under command of Sector Sarajevo. A Turkish battalion group - 1,500 strong - will come under Brigadier Ridgway's command early next month, probably based in the Muslim stronghold of Zenica and Kakanj. That makes the south-west sector by far the biggest of the three UN sectors reporting to Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose in Sarajevo.

The Mostar Road divides at Jablanica, running north-east to Sarajevo or north-west to Gornji Vakuf. It was closed for over a year, because for much of its length it crossed or ran level with the front line in the Croat-Muslim war, which ended in February, and because two key bridges had been blown up. The UN had to rely instead on the mountain road, routes 'Triangle' and 'Diamond', to get into central Bosnia and, by a roundabout route, to Sarajevo. That route has also been dramatically improved by the Engineers, who have turned parts of it from a goat track to a hard surfaced, two-way street.

Engineers from Britain, Spain, Slovakia and Malaysia have now re-established a permanent route past the two blown bridges which had cut the Mostar Road 15km north of Mostar, running along the east bank of the fast-flowing river Neretva, for over a year.

The bridges carried the road north from Mostar over, first, the river Bijela, which flows into the Neretva from the north, and then over a small cove. The much bigger southern bridge, over the Bijela, had been blown by skilled military engineers, now believed to have been Serbian Special Forces, and left a 172-metre (188- yard) gap.

Since last March, a Slovak engineer battalion had been operating a ferry, using a Soviet-built TM6 pontoon bridge, up and down the Neretva, past the gaps, but it was time consuming and unreliable, and did not operate at all some days. By putting two TM6s together, the Slovaks have bridged the gap permanently. The British engineers and Spanish troops built the ramps linking the Russian pontoon bridge to the road.

The Royal Engineers arrived at the second bridge in late May. Within three weeks they had carved a 22-metre-wide bypass round the gap through solid rock using 2.5 tons of explosive to shift 50,000 tons of debris. They worked up to 20 hours a day and finished five days early.

(Photographs and map omitted)