UN helicopter shot down after mercy mission: British forces rescue French aircrew from crowd of 'drunken' Croat militiamen in central Bosnia

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The Independent Online
A UN helicopter was shot down in central Bosnia on Wednesday night after it had evacuated wounded Muslims from the destroyed and deserted town of Zepa, it emerged yesterday.

The French air force Puma was hit by a single round south of Prozor, as it returned to Split, and was forced to land where it was surrounded by jubilant and apparently drunken members of the HVO - the Bosnian Croat militia. British army Warrior fighting vehicles were dispatched to its aid, while aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone circled overhead, and after about an hour the crew were released.

The incident underlines the vulnerability of helicopters to small-arms fire, which has been the main reason they are not being used in huge numbers, which the situation here would otherwise demand.

On Wednesday the four French Pumas evacuated a total of 37 badly wounded Muslims from Zepa to Zenica, 12km north-east of Vitez. The UN planned to evacuate about 200 in an operation continuing yesterday and today, but, apart from about ten more seriously wounded, they do not want to go.

The UN Commander in Central Bosnia, Lieutenant-General Philippe Morillon, signed an agreement for people from Zepa to be evacuated to an area of their own choice. Apart from the seriously wounded, many with amputated limbs, who need immediate treatment at Zenica regional hospital, the rest want to go to Sarajevo. Yesterday's operation was therefore cancelled on Wednesday night. The remaining seriously wounded will be evacuated tomorrow.

The Puma helicopter is armoured underneath, but the single round hit the hydraulic system and the aircraft was forced to land. Prozor has been the scene of much 'inter-communal' fighting between Muslims and Croats, and was in flames again a few days ago.

The topography of the Bosnian landscape would make helicopters an ideal way of getting people and supplies around, were it not for the weather and the helicopters' vulnerability to even light weapons - an ordinary 7.62mm Kalashnikov bullet, not even a 12.7mm heavy machine gun, in this case. The roads are muddy or dusty, and tortuous in the extreme. But the UN forces have avoided large-scale use of helicopters, for reasons made obvious by Wednesday night's forced landing.

The wounded who were evacuated from Zepa said that most people were hiding in the hills and caves surrounding the town, and they added that there was no food to be had in the town. One evacuee said people had starved to death but that the aid packages dropped by the US air force had saved many lives.

In Mostar, the southern Bosnian town wrecked by fighting between Croats and Muslims over the past week, fighting died down yesterday. Heavy shelling had stopped, although small-arms fire remained widespread. The Spanish troops who withdrew from Mostar last Saturday have returned to the centre of the town, where they found evidence of 'very heavy, bloody fighting - street by street'.

A UNHCR official visited a Croat-run camp for 2,000 Muslims at an old aircraft factory outside Mostar late on Wednesday, a spokeswoman in Geneva said. The official saw 15 young Muslim men carrying shovels being loaded on to a bus. He did not see them return.

'This guy has been there since the fall and he told us: 'Now I understand what ethnic cleansing means',' said the spokeswoman. 'He also said it reminded him of pictures of Jews during the Second World War, these 15 men carrying shovels.'

Yesterday, the exchange of prisoners was already in progress, although 1,300 people remained in detention at Mostar airport. The burning town can be seen from Medugorje, the religious shrine where a vision of the Virgin Mary was reported in 1981, which is now the headquarters of the Spanish battalion.

With the Croat assault on Mostar apparently over, the next Croat target may be Travnik, north-west of the British base at Vitez. The HVO have moved out of the town, northwards towards Serb lines. But Travnik is well-defended by the mainly Muslim Bosnian army. If a Croat assault on Travnik should occur, it could meet a bloody repulse.

(Photograph omitted)