Air bridge to Bosnia built anew each day: Forces involved in reopening the airport have ensured a tangible UN success, writes Julian Nundy in Sarajevo

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The Independent Online
'CAPTAIN GUETTE and his crew welcome you on board. Flying time will be 50 minutes.' The captain gave the message in French and English, reflecting the mix of nationalities among his six passengers on the French air force Transall transport plane. A few minutes earlier, he had shaken their hands, a white silk scarf showing above his bulletproof vest.

The flight was one of the 20 or so which make up the daily air bridge between Sarajevo, whose land links are cut by fighting, and the Croatian cities of Split and Zagreb. Six months after the airport was reopened by French soldiers of the UN Protection Force, enabling food and other humanitarian aid to reach the population, the operation is one of the UN's greatest tangible successes so far.

It remains a hazardous journey. In August, an Italian plane was shot down with the loss of all on board. In all, the airport has been closed 65 days since it reopened on 28 July.

Last Saturday, a German Transall flying from Zagreb turned back because it had been locked on by radar, a sign that an anti-aircraft missile battery had it in its sights as it flew over Bosnia. A couple of hours later, another German plane was on its way.

The rear loading ramp was left open as the plane taxied to the runway. Just before take-off, an airman jumped out and armed the flares which would decoy and detonate heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles fired at the plane. Then the ramp was raised.

There was nothing else in the behaviour of Peter Hauke, the captain, and his crew to suggest anything abnormal except the presence of an electronic counter-measures (ECM) officer on the look-out for a missile launch. Behind the cockpit, a coffee machine percolated all through the flight which ended with one of the steep descents for which Sarajevo is famous.

'We occasionally get hit by small- arms fire, Kalashnikov bullets,' said one French pilot. 'One French plane took one in its fuel tank a few weeks ago and lost 350 kilos (770lb) of fuel before landing.' He added that, although the planes were all equipped with ECMs to fire flares when in danger, 'if someone really wants to bring a plane down, there's not much you can do about it'.

Other nations' air forces, the British, Canadian and US, use C-130s to bring in aid and equipment for the UN Protection Force. Some UN flights are operated by Russian Ilyushins. Many flight crews set off flares on take-off to decoy missiles, often starting small fires in the grass lining the runway.

Jean-Claude Boitier, the French air force colonel in charge of airport operations, said he had asked US pilots to stop this procedure because their ECMs 'interfere with ground control approach radar'.

The US planes are the only ones to keep their engines running on the ground to facilitate a speedy turn- around. French air force ground crews pulled four pallets of freight with a total of 40 tons off a US Hercules this week in four minutes. The plane was on the ground for just 10 minutes.

Controllers at Sarajevo devised a three-level alert system, Colonel Boitier said. 'Green is when conditions are normal, yellow is when there is fighting but it does not . . . endanger the runway and red is when landings and take-offs are impossible.' In the control tower, Serbian and Bosnian Muslim liaison officers contact groups fighting round the airport - under Serbian control until the French moved in last July - if fighting affects operations.

Baggage and passenger security at Sarajevo is handled by police from Argentina, Colombia, Denmark and Portugal and Canadian Mounties. At Zagreb last week, it was in the hands of a Moscow militiaman, his uniform still carrying a hammer and sickle, and a Jordanian policeman.

Colonel Marcel Valentin, the French colonel who is deputy UN commander of the Sarajevo Sector, said he feared that an international military intervention in Bosnia would provoke the closure of Sarajevo airport. He said the best part of his job was 'the morning briefing when air operations report that the day before 20 more planes landed and all the (aid) convoys could go to the city. That's our real mission and all the other things are bullshit'.

(Photograph omitted)