Dismay in Sarajevo as Pope calls off visit

THE POPE yesterday called off his imminent visit to Sarajevo because of security risks, hours after Bosnian Serbs fired 11 artillery rounds at the besieged city. A statement from the Vatican said the Pope hoped to make the trip 'as soon as circumstances permitted'. President Alija Izetbegovic said he was 'deeply disappointed and saddened' by the news.

It was not unexpected. Despite the Pope's eagerness to visit, and the enthusiasm of Sarajevans to welcome him, the United Nations was reluctant to sanction the trip, saying it would be impossible to guarantee his safety or that of worshippers attending an open-air Mass. The UN special envoy, Yasushi Akashi, reportedly told the Vatican this week that the visit was too dangerous.

'Apart from not wanting to expose all the people awaiting the Pope in the Bosnian capital to serious risks, there is also the concern that the visit to Sarajevo should not be misconstrued and raise tension,' said the Vatican statement.

It was an acknowledgement that the Bosnian Serbs besieging the city were furious about the trip. The Serbs persistently refused to agree to the Pope's visit, saying they feared Bosnian government forces would shoot down the papal plane and blame the Serbs. Many Serbs loathe the Catholic church, believing it to have sided with Croatia in the war with its rebellious Serbs. Officials refer often to clerical collaboration in the Second World War with the fascist Ustashe regime, which murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs.

The veiled threats emanating over the past two weeks from Pale, the Bosnian Serb capital, were accompanied by artillery fire. 'It is a signal being given to the Pope,' said Colonel Jamie Daniels, an aide to Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, the UN commander in Bosnia. He said the news brought feelings 'of relief . . . and disappointment in some ways. It would have been a wonderful thing to do, but it was a wise decision.'

Major Koos Sol, a UN spokesman, said 11 artillery rounds were fired from Bosnian Serb territory on to the front line in the suburb of Sanac. Two UN planes were also hit by small arms fire near Sarajevo airport, almost certainly in violation of the heavy weapons exclusion zone imposed around Sarajevo by Nato. However, it is unlikely the UN will call in air strikes against the weapon. 'It is a historical event now, and we'll do our best to investigate it,' Col Daniels said.

Although explosions are heard often in the city, it was the first time the Serbs have fired so many shells in one go since the ultimatum was imposed in February.

Despite the high level of tension in the city - frequent machine- gun fire along suburban front lines, sniper fire, and shooting at UN planes - preparations for the papal visit were well under way. Workers and peace-keepers laboured to remove war debris from Zetra stadium, the Olympic speed- skating rink where the Pope was to have said mass, and to build a stage with wood foraged from the presidency.

A choir of Catholic teenagers practised songs of welcome; officials mobilised to deal with hundreds of visiting journalists; the UN flew in the bullet-proof Popemobile; and the police, dressed in new pale green uniforms rather than their usual ratty camouflage, stepped up patrols along the main airport road, otherwise known as Sniper Alley.

Sarajevans of all religious groups will be bitterly disappointed by the Vatican's decision. Self-declared atheists and practising Muslims, lapsed Orthodox and devout Catholics looked forward to the visit. Many hoped the Pope would help to bring peace. But it always seemed unlikely the Pontiff would get to Sarajevo. The risks were high.

'Sarajevo will remain Sarajevo,' Commander Eric Chaperon, a UN spokesman, said yesterday morning. 'There is a risk for everyone here.' The city which lives with that danger every day had hoped the media spotlight on the Pope would change all that.