Serbian shells halt civilian evacuation: UN airlift suspended as Bosnian Serbs continue to bombard srebrenica - New York negotiations on verge of breakdown

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BRITISH and French helicopters evacuated badly wounded Muslim civilians from the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica yesterday before Serbian shellfire forced the operation to be suspended.

After winning Bosnian Serb assurances that the evacuation could proceed, the operation began at 7am under overcast skies with low cloud. After initial delays, three French Army Pumas brought back 21 casualties and several women and children. The Serbs then began bombarding the Srebrenica landing site - a football pitch - killing a civilian and injuring two Canadian UN soldiers.

Two British helicopters, Royal Navy Sea Kings of 845 Squadron, picked them up, plus a few more casualties, but then had to vacate the scene as the shelling continued. A UN Protection Force spokesman said the evacuation would resume only if Serbian forces stopped bombarding the town, which is teeming with 60,000 people, many of them wounded, starving or ill after 11 months under Serbian siege in Bosnia's civil war.

The Serbs had earlier insisted the helicopters must be disarmed, then detained journalists on board the British helicopters. Serbian forces also shelled the operating base at Tuzla throughout the day - apparently to coincide with the end of the Muslim festival of Ramadan.

Under the agreement with the Serbs, the helicopters stopped at Zvornik, five minutes' flying time from Srebrenica. The Serbs forced the French helicopters to take back much of their equipment and detained two British journalists, Maggie O'Kane of the Guardian and Brian Hulls, a BBC cameraman, seizing a notebook and videotape. British military officials emphasised that this was within their rights, as the journalists did not have Serbian press passes, and that they were well-treated.

The air evacuation of Muslim casualties from Srebrenica coincided with that of 46 Serbs by road from the Muslim town of Tuzla. The United Nations screened the Serbs to ensure they were not being coerced.

The UN has been reluctant to use helicopters until now, because they are such easy targets, but on Sunday the Serbs agreed to an air corridor into Srebrenica. However, yesterday they continued to frustrate the United Nations with time-consuming searches. The French had to unload 'unnecessary equipment' - a radio, a satellite telephone and generator, ammunition and flares. The Royal Navy helicopters, which left Tuzla later, heard what was happening and the aircrews removed the ammunition from their own weapons - 7.62mm machine-guns.

The UN Protection Force threatened at first that the British helicopters would fly over the inspection site in Zvornik straight to Srebrenica if the delay continued. 'It is clear that your forces are deliberately impeding the medical evacuation from Srebrenica,' it said in a letter to General Ratko Mladic, supreme commander of the Bosnian Serb forces.

The helicopters are all based at the airfield at Tuzla. Tuzla airfield also came under artillery fire starting with 12 rounds at 5.30am yesterday, apparently to disrupt Muslim prayers. Two rounds landed within 30m (30 yards) of the helicopters, a British Navy spokesman said, but did no damage because of the soft ground.

The UN said that the Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, deplored the Srebrenica attack, 'which has occurred despite explicit assurances by Bosnian Serb leaders in the area and in New York'.

(Photograph omitted)