Serbians tighten their grip on UN 'hostages'

AWAY FROM the fighting in Gorazde, the stand-off between the United Nations and the Bosnian Serbs showed no sign of coming to an end yesterday. The UN described Serbian policy towards its troops in Bosnia as 'harassment', and up to 200 UN military and civilian personnel remained virtual hostages of the Serbs, 'for their own safety'.

Bosnian Serbs resumed their artillery attacks and sniping against Bosnian Muslim and UN forces yesterday. On Thursday, two UN helicopters, a British Sea King and a Puma, were fired on near Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, while 17 artillery shells fell around Tuzla, six of them very close to UN troops.

The UN commander in Bosnia, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, has closed Tuzla airport, which lies within easy range of Serbian guns, until further notice. The Maglaj region is the other main arena of conflict between Muslims and Serbs besides Gorazde. There have been regular exchanges between the British UN troops from the Coldstream Guards in Maglaj and Bosnian Serb snipers.

Further east, the Muslim-led BiH army has moved its troops through a small Croat-held pocket round Dostansko, to take on the Serbs in the first example of joint planning between the Bosnian army and Bosnian Croat HVO forces.

Since the two, limited Nato air attacks around Gorazde, the Bosnian Serbs have been ordered to have no dealings with UN troops. But long-standing relationships established between UN troops and local Serb commanders, however, mean that some negotiations are carrying on.

All the checkpoints in and out of Bosnian Serb territory are closed, and UN officers and civilians have been strongly advised against attempting to cross them. No aid flights are going into Sarajevo, although a few military flights have managed to land.

Yesterday three people were injured when snipers hit a tram in the city, prompting the authorities to halt the service. With the possibility of safe travel on Sarajevo's trams perceived as an indicator of a return to something approaching normality, the attack would have a depressing effect on morale of those who had begun to believe such a return was emerging as a possibility.

'The tram service has been stopped (for the time being). The drivers refused to drive any longer. We cannot force them to. They're doing it at their own risk,' a city transport agency spokeswoman said.

'We have informed the (peacekeeping) UN Protection Force and the city government and we are waiting for a solution because no one can make drivers go out now and drive again.'

One other tram passenger was wounded by a sniper shot a few weeks ago but the trams in the city kept rolling.

Sniping erupted this week as part of retaliation for Nato air strikes on Serb forces attacking Gorazde.

The ceasefire and reconciliation between Muslims and Croats in central Bosnia has held, in spite of small provocations. In the Kiseljak area, two extremist Croat groups actively opposed to the proposed Muslim-Croat federation have been intimidating local Muslims.

In Vitez yesterday, junior officials in the Bosnian Croat HVO made clear their hostility to the second anniversary celebrations of the Bosnian army, in spite of the fact that the two forces are now supposed to be allies. Elsewhere the two former enemies have begun to put into practice a form of limited co-operation against the Serbs.

With all UN military observers in the Bosnian Serb area under house arrest, and several convoys trapped, around 200 UN personnel are virtual hostages.

The morale of the 16 Canadian UN soldiers detained by the Serbs on Thursday is reported to be high. For the second day, the Canadians were allowed to send them a few supplies, including food and some board games.

On Thursday, 15 of the soldiers, and three UN military observers and a translator were taken by a Serbian liaison officer to the Bosnian Serb security headquarters in Ilijas, north-west of Sarajevo, in their own armoured personnel carriers.

(Map omitted)