Muslims find safety in path of UN lorries: People of Mostar hold a UN relief convoy 'hostage' as Izetbegovic demands the re-casting of the Bosnian peace plan

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MOSTAR (AP, Reuter) - Desperate Muslims, determined to keep a United Nations convoy with them as protection against Croatian attacks, slept in front of the empty trucks yesterday as weary UN officials negotiated the trucks' departure. More than 150 UN peace-keepers and relief workers have been trapped in the besieged Muslim quarter of Mostar since they arrived with a convoy of food and medicine early on Thursday.

A ceasefire, in effect since the convoy arrived, has been generally respected along the street where the vehicles are parked although the UN reported that a Muslim sniper was firing from a building near by and threatening the safety of the convoy. 'The sniper has been firing for several hours from behind us and he is drawing return fire from the Croat side,' said a UN official. 'We are worried the Croats may start shelling his position and hit us. We have complained vigorously to the Muslim side.'

The 19 trucks, accompanied by 18 UN armoured vehicles, brought 175 tons of aid to some 55,000 Muslims trapped on the east side of the Neretva River, which divides the city in southeastern Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was the first major delivery of food and medicine to the eastern sector in more than two months.

Since their arrival Muslims have surrounded the trucks, fearing that rival Croats on the opposite bank of the river would attack them. During the night the trucks and armoured vehicles turned on their engines. People sleeping on the streets awoke, crying 'Get up, get up, they're leaving' and blocked the convoy. UN officials and aid workers negotiated through the night for permission to leave.

The stand-off persisted despite an appeal by Bosnia's President, Alija Izetbegovic, to fellow Muslims to let 'reason prevail and to let the . . . convoy through,' Sarajevo radio reported on Thursday night.

Upon arriving in Mostar, thousands of exhausted people mobbed the trucks as they pulled to a stop. Other trucks in the convoy brought about 90 tons of aid to the Croat-controlled west bank of the Neretva.

Cedric Thornberry, the UN civic- affairs officer for the former Yugoslavia, negotiated for hours on Thursday with local officials and reached agreement to get the trucks out. At one point he angrily threatened to stop all humanitarian aid to Bosnia, saying the convoy and its personnel were 'held as hostages, which is completely unacceptable'.

Despite the agreement, dozens of residents staged a sit-down strike in front of the vehicles. New negotiations between Mr Thornberry and local officials followed and new conditions were set.

Unshaven and haggard after hours of deadlock, Mr Thornberry tried to persuade them that they were jeopardising future deliveries of food to the quarter. 'Better to die of starvation than shelling,' was the reply from the desperate residents, who have no running water or electricity.

Silvana Foa, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, was yesterday more optimistic: 'I think there is good faith on all sides. I don't think it will be a problem for too much longer,' she said.

Once allies, Croats and Muslims have fought bitterly for Mostar and for land in central Bosnia, and the fighting has worsened as leaders of the warring factions come closer to agreeing to a peace plan dividing the country. Croats want to make Mostar the capital of a Bosnian Croat state.

(Photograph omitted)