British troops mete out rough justice to Serb snipers: In the besieged Muslim enclave of Maglaj Christopher Bellamy, with the Coldstream Guards, found peace was still a distant prospect

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The Independent Online
THE WAR is not over in Maglaj - far from it. Major Richard Margesson has been commanding No 3 Company, the Coldstream Guards, in their new base in a former school in Maglaj for two weeks.

He pointed out the ground from behind a sandbagged position in a first-floor classroom. 'See that triangular position? That's the most persistent of the Bosnian Serb sniper positions. It's 750 metres away. I usually have an anti-tank system up here,' he said.

'Those five prominent houses on the treeline - they're BSA (Bosnian Serb army) as well. We have identified precisely where snipers are most common.'

The occupants of the position have indeed been persistent. On 25 March, just after the Guards arrived, they had a series of exchanges with it, culminating in 17 30mm rounds from a quick-firing Rarden cannon which tore it apart. 'It wasn't bad shooting,' said Major Margesson. 'The Warrior's arc of fire was impeded by the trees, so we had to blast the trees away.'

Then, a couple of days previously, fire emerged again from the rebuilt bunker. The Guards fired 10 rounds from a 7.62mm machine gun to the left of it, 10 rounds to the right of it, 10 just in front of it and then 30 rounds right into it.

'When you have rounds hitting this building or the flats behind it I just feel it's time to make the point,' the ascetic-looking major said quietly.

Maglaj, a Muslim town, was cut off for months by Bosnian Serbs on three sides and Croat HVO forces to the south. To the east lies Ozren, an area of mountains, forest and small farms, a Partisan stronghold during the Second World War which the Germans never penetrated.

Now it is a Serb stronghold. Maglaj, on a main north-south supply route, was an obvious objective and the Serbs shelled it. Last summer the Croats to the south invited the Serbs into their area to cut off Maglaj completely. But the peace agreement between the Muslims and Croats at the end of February changed that.

Reports of Maglaj's plight during those months appear to have been exaggerated. The US air- dropped about 400 tons of supplies a month and that sustained the population. The town is badly damaged but people were not starving.

The reconnaissance troops of the Light Dragoons, now based at Zepce, were first into the area. The British told the Croats that the UN was preparing to break the blockade, and that if they stayed where they were they would get mixed up in it. Now allied with the Muslims, the Croats moved their troops so that the Serbs surrounding the Maglaj pocket were sandwiched between the HVO to the south and the Muslims to the north. The HVO commander told the Serbs they were in a militarily insupportable position and on 19 March they withdrew from their front lines around Maglaj towards Novi Seher.

With perfect timing the UN sent in the first convoy. The UN moved its convoys as the Serbs withdrew in confusion. 'The scenes I saw were just what I saw in the Gulf, pursuing the retreating Iraqis, said Major Margesson.

The Serbs are now back in their old positions along the east bank of the river Bosna. The Muslims have been pushing in this direction, but everyone dismisses talk of a spring offensive. The UN troops in Zepce and Maglaj are there to keep the the pocket open. The British have set up two new observation posts, X4 and X5. After Easter the Croats are expected to join the BiH in attacking the Serbs.

There is a new UN post, B10, on the old boundary between the Croats and the Maglaj pocket. Next to it stands the shell of what used to be the Saraj restaurant, pockmarked and shot to pieces.

We picked our way through glass and rubble. It had been a very good restaurant, they said, and was in a handy place, halfway between Zepce and Maglaj and next to a checkpoint. The Coldstream Guards are going to help the locals reopen it, under the name by which it is now known, because of its bullet- sprayed facade - the Spotty Dog. 'It's a great project for the guardsmen. The boys just love getting stuck in,' said Major Margesson.

'As soon as the building materials arrive from Split, we'll start with kebabs - something simple like that.'

(Photograph and map omitted)