Muslim forces hurl improvised gas grenades at Croats

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BOSNIAN Muslim forces have used improvised gas grenades against their Croatian adversaries in central Bosnia, it emerged yesterday. The agent is non-lethal, and appears to be a riot control gas with some other noxious agent mixed in, but it indicates how the conflict is becoming more desperate.

Last week there were reports of gas grenades being used in fighting near Busovaca, but it was unclear whether they were police gas projectiles or something locally manufactured.

Yesterday's trail led to a Croat war hospital in Novi Bila, one mile north-west of the British base at Vitez. In a makeshift operating centre in a Catholic church, Tihomir Peric, a former military surgeon in the Yugoslav army, said two patients had been brought in with gas poisoning. One had been released, the other was recovering. He lay in a cramped ward in a cellar, complaining of pains in his chest and stomach. He was coughing and had difficulty speaking.

The wounded soldier - from the Bosnian Croat forces - said he had been with a comrade at the village of Prosje when a projectile landed right next to him. It did not explode, but he saw something pouring out - 'like tear-gas', then black smoke. At first, he said he 'wanted to go to sleep', then he began to choke. A couple of minutes later, he started coughing blood. 'Everything tastes very bitter,' he said. He could not eat, or walk more than 10 yards, and was very weak and in constant pain.

According to hospital records, the man was brought in semi-conscious on 6 July, a day after he was injured. 'I can be sure it's poisoning', said Dr Peric. 'It is some kind of gas or smoke; some kind of police gas.'

The soldier showed some of the symptoms of nerve gas, including bulging eyes and dilated pupils, and he was given atropine, the standard military treatment. At first, Dr Peric said, the man recovered. It now seems it was not nerve gas: had it been, and with exposure that close, he would be dead. The man may have suffered atropine poisoning from the hasty treatment.

On Saturday, a British officer said the Bosnian Croats in Busovaca had reported that the Muslim-led Bosnian army had been hurling explosive devices at the town, and had used a 'very large catapult' for the purpose. This is a primitive war, and often a war of sieges, but even so, the British officer had difficulty keeping a straight face.

On Saturday night, there was intense speculation at the British camp in Vitez: with few heavy firearms but plenty of timber from the encircling forests, it would be entirely appropriate for the Bosnian Muslim army to build medieval siege engines, though tactical innovation and imagination have not been strong points in this war.

I asked the Bosnian Croat commander to draw a 'catapult', and he did so in my notebook. It was a home-made drainpipe mortar - the Croats use the word katapult loosely to describe any kind of launcher. He drew the explosive charge below the projectile, and a slow fuse.

SARAJEVO - The body of a British journalist, Ibrahim Goksel, was found by French UN troops on the tarmac of Sarajevo airport, AFP reports. A UN spokesman said yesterday that Goksel, who was carrying an Unprofor press card and British passport, had been shot dead by a sniper. It was not known for whom he had worked.