British UN troops began withdrawing from the isolated Muslim enclave of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia yesterday, hours after repelling a raid by local Bosnian Muslims who appeared to be trying to seize British weapons. The remaining British troops are expected to be out in a couple of days, to avoid being trapped by resentful Bosnian government troops.
The British troops from the Royal Welch Fusiliers killed two of the attackers late on Thursday night and hit a third. About half the British Gorazde force - 76 troops and almost 20 Saxon armoured vehicles - left in three convoys yesterday.
The United Nations had planned to withdraw the 180-strong British garrison in Gorazde soon anyway. But Tuesday night's raid may have speeded up the timetable. The remaining British troops are expected to withdraw in a few days.
The attack has highlighted the danger that the British force could be trapped by local people desperate for arms and supplies.
About five local men wearing Bosnian government army uniforms attacked the British base near Gorazde at about 11pm on Thursday night. They were supported by machine gun and rifle fire, but were repelled.
The British commander in Gorazde, Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Riley, who will remain in Gorazde until the last troops withdraw, said yesterday he was getting full co-operation from the local Bosnian authorities to find out who the attackers were.
The British troops' withdrawal followed about 90 Ukrainian peace-keepers who had left the enclave by Thursday.
The first of the three convoys had passed through the Bosnian Serb checkpoint by lunchtime yesterday, heading for Belgrade.
The troops were expected to spend last night camping outside Belgrade.
There, they were due to hand their vehicles over to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which will be replacing them in Bosnia. The Welch Fusiliers will then fly to Split, in Croatia, before flying home.
The UN will replace the British garrison in Gorazde with a dozen or so unarmed UN military observers. UN officials say that the 250-strong Gorazde force was too weak to defend the enclave, which has a population of about 60,000, and was in danger of being taken hostage. Withdrawing it, the UN says, may make it easier to use Nato airpower in the event of a determined Serb assault.
Over the past months the Bosnian government army has become increasingly disenchanted with the UN, and has indicated that it would rather fight its war against the Bosnian Serbs alone. However, the Bosnian forces in Gorazde are poorly armed, and the UN is not confident that the local commanders would obey such instructions from the Bosnian government in Sarajevo.