British troops strive to keep Bosnia aid lifeline open: Ceasefire accord and radio control of convoys are crucial to flow of traffic

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The Independent Online
AROUND 1.5 million people in central Bosnia can be kept alive this winter as long as the will to do so still exists, the commander of British forces in Bosnia said yesterday.

Although the Mostar road will be unusable for the rest of the winter, the destruction of key bridges carrying that road north of Mostar has driven the British to redouble their efforts to improve the flow of aid up the mountain road from Split through Tomislavgrad, Prozor, Gornji Vakuf and Vitez to Zenica. Crucial to the plan are new radios that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) organisation will give to the British forces controlling the route, so aid convoys will be in continuous contact.

To drivers travelling down the one remaining route from the sea into central Bosnia on Wednesday, enormous improvements were apparent. Another 600m (600 yards) of road on the tortuous 40km (25 miles) mountain stretch, where we met the first convoy carrying UN aid for nearly a month, has been widened to take traffic in both directions. Huge lay-bys have been blasted out of the mountainside to hold convoys while others pass in the few remaining areas where two- way traffic is still not possible.

'I feel confident we can keep the route open and the traffic flowing,' said Brigadier John Reith, who commands the 2,500-strong British Bosnia force. 'The winter I believe I can cope with, and I believe we can maintain the flow of traffic, provided we can get across the lines of conflict. We need to achieve a ceasefire agreed by all parties - otherwise it's a stop-start situation.'

Brig Reith negotiated the agreement with the new head of the Bosnian Croat militia, the HVO, which permitted the resumption of convoys on this route on Wednesday.

The plan involves complete control of convoys from the big UN depot at Metkovic, just inside Croatia, all the way to Zenica. Radio communications with the UNHCR convoys will also enhance security, enabling the vulnerable civilian convoys to be warned of potential hazards and to report incidents.

Experts say there is virtually no limit to the amount of aid that could be carried up the road, as long as the warring factions co-operate. Five hundred lorries a day is a modest target. The limiting factors will be money, lorries and aid available to the UNHCR. The British army will make spare lorries available to the UNHCR, as it did on Wednesday when 36 of them broke the siege of Vitez carrying UNHCR supplies.

In the longer term, the UN command would like to reopen the Mostar road but that will not be possible this winter. The senior British engineer has inspected the Bijela bridge, 15km north of Mostar, and advised it would take 100 days to repair, if military engineers can manage the task at all.

Military bridging is designed to cross small, straight gaps, while the five-span Bijela bridge is curved and rises - a complex piece of civil engineering. One pier is destroyed below the waterline and another very badly damaged, and it might be necessary to lower the water level using the dam downstream to effect a repair. The destruction of a second bridge, 800m to the north-west, adds to the problem.

Besides the physical difficulties and expense, it is clear that the Bosnian Croats do not want the Mostar road kept open, and unless the route is secured with hundreds more troops they could easily blow up the new bridges as well. For this winter, therefore, every effort is going into maximising the flow of aid up the mountain road.