Siege of Gorazde: True grit on the route to besieged town: UN convoy brings relief supplies after 146 days

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SARAJEVO - French elan, Ukrainian grit and British tact broke the 146-day siege of Gorazde at the weekend as a United Nations relief column delivered 50 tons of food and medicine to the beleaguered town, Reuteur reports. The question is: can it be done again? Larry Hollingworth, the white-bearded UN logistics expert who masterminded Saturday's breakthrough, says it can.

'The key is preparation . . . we spent 10 days shuttling between the two camps (Bosnian and Serbian) making arrangements,' explained the former British army officer. 'Then it was a matter of luck and determination.' Mr Hollingworth walked the final 1,000 yards into Gorazde with French Lieutenant-Colonel Erik de Stabenrath, climbing over felled tree branches and past land-mines.

Lt-Col Stabenrath's French marines provided an armed escort for the convoy as Ukrainian soldiers wrestled lorries up and down tortuous mountain roads for hours. When the 18-vehicle relief column left Sarajevo airport early Saturday morning, Mr Hollingworth rated his chances of success at 50 per cent. The crunch came about three hours later in Rogatica, a Serbian-controlled town now 'cleansed' of Muslims, where the local chief of police advised against proceeding because of fighting on the road ahead.

When he withdrew a promised armed escort, citing fears of a Muslim ambush, it looked as though the convoy might have to turn back, as had two previous relief efforts. But as a plume of black smoke from the battle smudged the sky, Mr Hollingworth and Lt-Col Stabenrath huddled with the Ukrainian logistics officer over a map spread on the hood of the French colonel's jeep. They decided on an alternative route over a dirt track through the mountains and agreed to proceed even without the Serb escort.

'If they shell or mortar us it means they have us pinpointed . . . the only way to get out is to drive forward . . . there is no reversing the convoy,' were Mr Hollingworth's final words as the column rolled out of Rogatica at noon. Four hours later he was standing in the centre of Gorazde as shell-shocked residents cheered, cried and pressed flowers on their rescuers. 'I have never liberated a town before,' beamed the UN official, 'I think I shall make a career out of this.'

The convoy narrowly averted disaster on the return to Sarajevo when it pulled up 50ft short of mines planted at a sharp switchback in the road halfway to Rogatica. Twenty hours later French combat engineers despatched from Sarajevo were on hands and knees probing the road for mines as a pitched battle raged on the mountain nearby.

The clash between Serbian and Bosnian forces swirled perilously close to the column at times, prompting French and Ukrainian soldiers to take up skirmish positions at one point. The engineers finally blew up the mines successfully and the convoy rolled into Rogatica just before dark, only to find the Serbs there seething.

Ten of their men had been killed and six wounded in the afternoon's fighting. As a flatbed lorry hauled eight of the bodies into town, the local military commander fumed over his worst losses of the war. 'This is the price we paid for working with you,' stormed the commander, named Rajko, 'they (the Bosnian forces) prepared their attack behind your position.' The convoy arrived back in Sarajevo at midnight on Sunday, 44 hours after leaving. Standing under a nearly-full moon on the airport tarmac, the British, French and Ukrainians who 'liberated' Gorazde were planning another visit.