Spaniards enjoy a smooth ride in Bosnia: Christopher Bellamy, in Medjugorje, found a strikingly relaxed contingent of UN troops coping with their task

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The Independent Online
LIKE ANIMALS, armies seem to evolve and adapt to their surroundings. Here, just south of Mostar, where the Spanish battalion has its headquarters, the terrain is relatively flat and the roads are good. The Spanish have wheels, whereas the British grind around on tracks in mud, rock and ice.

This is the third Spanish battalion to serve in Bosnia. The first two, Malaga and Canarias, were mostly from the Spanish Legion. The third, Agrupacion Madrid, are paratroopers, normally stationed near the Spanish capital and many are native madrilenos.

The British, like the Spanish, wonder if there will be a fourth battalion, or whether the United Nations will pull out in the spring. If there is, it will be from the Cordoba mechanised brigade.

There are doubts about how well protected the Spanish BMR medium wheeled armoured vehicles are. But Captain Ernesto Cuervo pointed out a hole made in the surface of the armour by a half-inch calibre armour-piercing round. It had gone in a little way, turning the metal to the consistency of concrete, but the armour had absorbed it.

Among the white BMRs there was a bizarre interloper: a bright-red London bus. When the Spanish arrived at the hacienda-like holiday village that has become their base it had been outside - a reminder of the days when British tourists flocked to Yugoslavia. The Spanish brought it inside for safety, and here it sits, waiting for the tourists to return if and when the war ends.

After the British at Vitez, the Spanish seem strikingly relaxed. They have suffered more casualties than the British and daily run a gauntlet of shot and shell. It was Captain Cuervo who last week had the task of removing the bodies of three Italian journalists killed in Mostar by a Croatian shell. 'We got the bodies out on Saturday,' he said. 'It was very complicated.'

About 60 shells a day fall on east Mostar, held by the Muslim-led Bosnian army (BiH). The most this battalion has noted is 90.

In return, the BiH can only fire a few back at Croat-held west Mostar. 'One day there were 20,' Captain Cuervo said. 'Maybe they suddenly found a whole box.'

Medjugorje, where a shrine sprang up after an apparent vision of the Virgin Mary on a hillside some years ago, seems a world apart from the war continuing in Mostar up the road.

But to the north, you can see the snow-covered mountains south of Jablanica. And between, yesterday afternoon, a plume of smoke was rising from Mostar. And all the cafes and restaurants that had burgeoned to feed the pilgrims were closed. There was a distinct shortage of young men. 'It's conscription,' someone said. 'All the young Croats have gone to the war.'

VITEZ - A British soldier was shot and wounded by a gunman, suspected of being a Croat, in central Bosnia yesterday, Reuter reports. A British spokesman said the soldier was wounded when the Land Rover he was driving was hit by a bullet near Gornji Vakuf, where British troops are based. The town has been the scene of fierce fighting between Muslims and the Croatian HVO militia. The bullet passed through the vehicle's rear door and hit the soldier in the shoulder. He was taken to the British military hospital nearby in Vitez. A UN source said his condition was 'non life-threatening'.

(Photograph omitted)

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