Bosnia Crisis: Deal to open roads and free hostages: British troops come under heavy fire near Sarajevo as Bosnian Serbs sign agreement to end offensive

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The Independent Online
BOSNIAN Serb leaders and the UN Secretary-General's special representative, Yasushi Akashi, yesterday signed an agreement reopening Bosnian Serb checkpoints, releasing UN people detained by the Serbs and stipulating that the Serbs withdraw 3km (1.8 miles) further from around Gorazde, in exchange for Nato planes keeping away from the besieged Muslim town.

Even after the deal was signed, the Bosnian Serb assault was reported to have continued. Sixteen Canadian soldiers, held since last week, were released and reoccupied their posts in Serb-held territory before returning to their base at Visoko. A Swedish convoy trapped at the checkpoint for a week passed through yesterday afternoon.

Also agreed between Mr Akashi and the Serbs was for a joint peace- keeping force in Gorazde of 120 Coldstream Guards with 15 Warriors, 150 French troops, 66 Ukrainians and 50 Egyptians.

The agreement followed a confused and hectic 24 hours, in which the biggest fire-fight so far between British UN troops and Bosnian Serbs erupted early yesterday morning just outside Sarajevo. The Serbs fired a heavy machine-gun at a UN observation post manned by the Coldstream Guards just 15 metres away and hurled grenades. As the Guards' Warrior armoured vehicles withdrew under fire, British posts blasted the Serbs with rapid-fire cannon, machine-guns and mortars.

That night, a British soldier was shot dead, apparently by Bosnian police at a roadblock as he returned from a party during the nightly curfew. Timothy Costes, 28, who was in civilian dress, was found by civilians in a western area of Sarajevo and died in hospital yesterday.

UN operations staff said yesterday they could not keep track of what was happening in the country. The Bosnian Serbs continued their attack on Gorazde and were reported to have taken the town. Gorazde is a key objective, because it commands the main road from Serbia to the sea; the enclave stands in the way of Bosnian Serb movement in all directions. It has been used as a base for attacks outwards by the trapped Bosnian army.

Yesterday the problems of working under the ponderous UN organisation showed themselves again when the British at Vitez attempted to move a convoy to Sarajevo to resupply the second company of the Coldstream Guards prior to a possible move to Gorazde. It was understood the Bosnian Serbs had given tacit approval for the special convoy, which left at 6.30am escorted by the Light Dragoons, pennants flying in the wind and rain. But it only got as far as Kiseljak. There, the British discovered that, unknown to them, it had been agreed that the Scandinavian, mainly Swedish, convoy stuck for a week at the crossing point into Serbia had to move first, followed by a Norwegian convoy.

Furthermore, although the British had been told they would pass the Bosnian Serb checkpoint Sierra One at 9am, nothing was to happen until after more talks at the Bosnian Serb capital at Pale, due to begin at 10am. The British convoy headed back to Vitez, but at about 3.45pm yesterday news came of the agreement between the Serbs and Mr Akashi and it was told to turn round and head back to try again to cross into Serb-held territory.

The ferocious fight with the Bosnian Serbs outside Sarajevo started at 4.50am when the Serbs opened fire with machine-guns and hurled two hand-grenades at the British UN checkpoint north-west of Sarajevo. The British withdrew and other observation posts responded with machine-guns and three mortar bombs, reportedly destroying two Serbian bunkers. It was the biggest engagement to date between British ground troops and the Bosnian Serbs, but does not seem to have interfered with the negotiations, suggesting that the Serbs involved may have been acting against orders or have been drunk.

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