Ancient treasures destroyed

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TO THE embattled people of Sarajevo, it was the very heart of their ancient city, a symbol of more civilised times. Yesterday, the old Town Hall, a long-time tourist attraction latterly converted into a National Library, was a burnt-out hulk.

It was the latest target of hillside Serbian gunners, never the most sensitive to architectural beauty, who shelled it until it went up in flames on Tuesday night. Yesterday, they poured in mortar and machine-gun fire as local firemen vainly tried to save tons of historic Bosnian archives.

The bombardment of the historic city centre throughout Tuesday night and yesterday morning seemed timed to coincide with the start of the London conference on the former Yugoslavia. Among the targets were rows of houses dating from the Ottoman era and a medieval Turkish hamam - public baths - in the old Muslim quarter of Bascarsija.

A local hospital, widely known by its old name, the Military Hospital, took a direct artillery hit which killed a nurse and wounded several others. Patients were removed to the basement as the bombardment continued. Last night, Bosnian officials said 14 people had been killed in the city and 126 wounded by bullets or shrapnel in the previous 24 hours.

Shortly before John Major, the Prime Minister, told the London conference that 'in this room there are people who can stop this war', escalation, not cessation was the name of the game on the ground. The Bosnian side accused the Serbs of trying to snatch yet more territory to strengthen their negotiating hand.

Seeking to explain the worst bombardment of Sarajevo in weeks, the Serbs said they were responding to efforts by the city's defenders - mainly Muslim Slavs but including Croats and some Serb residents - to break the siege. The defenders, who for the past few days had tried to break through Serbian lines in the Ilidja suburb near the airport, appeared to be testing Serbian defences in Grbavica, just south of the narrow Miljacka river that splits the city.

A Muslim breakthrough in Grbavica, giving them a strong foothold south of the river, could open the door to control of an important Bosnian-Serb supply route, running from the airport and nearby Lukavica barracks to the town of Pale.

The 19th-century former Town Hall, with a distinctive Moorish- style facade, was where Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife attended a reception in 1914 minutes before they were assassinated nearby. The murders, by a young Serbian nationalist, sparked the First World War.

'I loved this building very much. Even on fire it is very beautiful,' said one onlooker yesterday as the four-storey crenellated building burnt. Residents defied shellfire and a curfew to save some of the library's historic treasures. Kenan Slinic, the local fire chief, was asked why he was risking his life. 'Because I was born here and they are burning a part of me,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)