Aid workers expect to be taken hostage: Serb guarantees fail to reassure relief staff who fear revenge attacks or kidnap if Nato hits Bosnia targets

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INTERNATIONAL humanitarian aid workers in Serb-held parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina say that, despite official assurances by the Bosnian Serbs guaranteeing their safety and freedom of movement, they expect to be held hostage or to become the targets of Serbian retaliation if Nato planes attack the Serbs.

'In case of air strikes there will be nowhere for us to go,' said one aid worker based in Pale, the Bosnian Serb government headquarters some 12 miles outside Sarajevo. 'It is obvious that the road to Sarajevo will not be a possible escape route and, should I try to leave Pale, I will be stoned to death by an angry crowd.' She added: 'My only contingency plan is to walk up to the Bosnian Serb presidency building to demand protection, but considering that it is probably a target for Nato air strikes too, I may end up being taken there anyway.'

Relief workers have often said that foreign military intervention in Bosnia would mean an end to the international aid effort that aims to supply an estimated 2.75 million people, and that it could expose the international field staff to revenge attacks. Those arguments have recently assumed greater importance.

On Thursday, the deputy commander of the Bosnian Serb army, General Milan Gvero, said all international aid workers in Serb-held areas of Bosnia would have to remain at their posts in the event of a Western air attack. 'If representatives of their country are going to bomb us, they (the aid workers) will remain with us.'

The General's remarks, which drew protests from the head office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees came a day after three UNHCR international field staff - a Briton, a Sri Lankan and a Greek - were prevented at gunpoint from leaving Banja Luka in northern Bosnia by Serbian soldiers, allegedly under orders to keep them in Bosnia.

By yesterday, however, the Bosnian Serb authorities appeared to have withdrawn the threat. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, assured the UNHCR in Geneva that there was no threat to UN workers on the ground, while the Bosnian Serb army chief of staff, General Manoljo Milanovic, told the UN special envoys that he had overruled General Gvero. A few hours later, the three UNHCR fieldworkers in Banja Luka were granted permission to leave the area today.

Nevertheless, aid workers say that the threats and experiences of the UN staff in Banja Luka may be a taste of things to come. They say that their head offices are worried but will make no statement or move which could be viewed as an attempt to influence the political situation before possible Nato air attacks. However, they say that they have been told by their officers to keep a low profile.

General Gvero accused the UNHCR of trying to sneak its people out of Serb-held areas of Bosnia, an allegation the UNHCR strongly denies. Officially, UNHCR says that its international staff were being withdrawn to prepare for the forthcoming visit of the High Commissioner, Sadako Ogata. One UNHCR official, however, said: 'This is just bullshit. It was the excuse for us to leave. They will not say it, but they wanted staff out of Serb areas of Bosnia for security reasons.'

Also for security reasons, Britain and a few other countries temporarily suspended aid convoys following Nato's decision on Wednesday to impose a 10-day ultimatum for Serbs and Muslims to withdraw or put under UN control all their weapons in and around Sarajevo. 'It's fairly clear to everybody that if there are air strikes, the situation on the ground is going to change for us,' a UN official said yesterday.

(Photograph omitted)