Croats cool as British convoy rolls into Split

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THE BLUE Oslo-registered roll- on-roll-off ship Bassro Star pulled in to the north dock at the Croatian port of Split yesterday morning and, within a few minutes, the British Army's vehicles rolled off, circled the gritty parking area and drove straight out of the port.

Glacier-white, with black lettering and the occasional red cross, vehicles of every shape and size - about a hundred in all - emerged glistening in the dying October sun. A JCB, a recovery vehicle, an eight-tonne Bedford and then a four-tonne were the first off. Later came the first of four armoured ambulances and a container lifter, joining the queue of vehicles heading inland.

As we walked back along the cobbled, tramlined quayside, dockyard workers who were unloading a ship full of potatoes shouted 'Unprofor' - the UN protection force. They meant it abusively, because, although Unprofor 2, of which the British forces are part, will escort humanitarian aid into Bosnia, Unprofor 1 protects four areas in northern and eastern Croatia. Some Croatians see it as helping 'ethnic cleansing' and aiding the Bosnian Muslims, for whom they have no great affection, despite their recent alliance against Serbia. The UN force has been derided as 'Serbprofor'.

The British task here, like the sharply distinguished vehicles, is crystal-clear - get humanitarian aid through. Brigadier Andrew Cumming, the British Bosnia force commander, was watching, arms folded, as the white vehicles began to roll. He was confident that his Bosnian high-tech stockades at Gorni Vakuf and Vitez would not be isolated - even if Bosnian Croat and Muslim forces were fighting each other.

'I don't see it as a threat to us getting out. Experience in Novi Travnik 10 days ago indicated that, as long as we warned the right people, even if there is fighting going on, you can go through.' In this civil war, the UN forces are seen as an annoying irrelevance.

'Our job is to tell the commanders at every level - town commanders, village commanders - that we are neutral, that our job is to get humanitarian aid through', he added.

But the British supply route entwines uncomfortably round the 'Road of Salvation', mapped out in a newspaper here. It runs from Croatia proper towards the more distant Croatian areas in Bosnia through the bridgehead at Tomislavgrad. The new Croatian road cuts through Prozor, a Muslim town, where at least 500 of the inhabitants have been displaced and are reported to have be hiding in the woods for the last four days. They fled in slippers and nightclothes, I was told, and one old lady said a cave to live in would be luxury.

A second, southern Croatian route runs south-east from Tomislavgrad, then east-north- east to Jablanica. After the fall of Jajce to the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosnian Muslims have their backs to the wall. Every Muslim town seems to be under fire. The centre of Prozor is still understood to be in Muslim hands.

But the British forces turning north from the Croatian main supply line to establish bases for their own forces cannot and will not intervene. 'You could stuff this place with UN, and if you didn't have your finger on that man there and that man there, they'd still shoot at each other', a senior officer said.