'Three soldiers among patients flown to UK'

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AS DOCTORS began to treat the sick and wounded Bosnians airlifted to Britain in 'Operation Irma', it emerged that at least three of the 21 seriously ill patients brought out of the war zone are believed to be soldiers.

Aid officials ruled out the possibility that the men could have bribed their way on to the flight out. Instead doctors would have chosen them for evacuation because of the severity of their condition, they said.

Sylvana Foa, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said: 'We have a medical committee in Sarajevo to make sure no one buys or intimidates their way on to the roster.' But she accepted that some patients brought to Britain had almost certainly been involved in defending Sarajevo.

Patrick Peillod, the UNHCR doctor in charge of the evacuation from Sarajevo, said it was irrelevant whether the men flown out on Sunday were soldiers. 'We are working according to the Geneva Convention and a soldier in this particular case, once wounded, is considered as a civilian. There is absolutely no difference.'

At University College Hospital in London, Chris Lavy, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon who is treating Namko Mulamehic, 33, for severe leg injuries, said: 'When I asked him if he was a soldier, he smiled and said: 'Everyone in Sarajevo is a soldier'.' Mr Mulamehic was injured when a grenade exploded near him during hand-to-hand fighting last month.

At Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, David Wilson, the chief executive, admitted that Ahdin Dugonjic, a dental technician, and Senad Mirvic, a welder, both of whom require treatment for facial injuries, could have been involved in the fighting. 'However, as far as we are concerned, they are two patients, who have injuries that need treatment, ' he said.

Brian Mawhinney, the Health Minister, said he was unable to comment on reports that some evacuees had been combatants. The 21 patients are being treated at nine hospitals in Britain for war wounds and illnesses such as brain tumours and heart problems.