UN predicts many deaths as 'wicked winter' hits Bosnia

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A 'WICKED winter' began yesterday as the first thick snow fell on central Bosnia. Larry Hollingworth, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in central Bosnia, was in Zenica, the Muslim city in the Bosnian heartland. 'If we don't get aid in there will be lots of deaths. We're now down to the absolute minimum,' he warned. 'The people are very angry. They've had one very hard winter. Every cupboard is bare. We're not issuing aid. If their morale drops they may get angry and may even take their anger out on us.'

Mr Hollingworth said the situation in and around Zenica was worse than in Sarajevo, which received regular consignments of aid and was protected against anarchy by the UN Protection Force headquarters. The UNHCR depot in Zenica is down to a last-ditch reserve of 600 tons of supplies for one and a half million people. No aid has moved for three weeks since 26 October, when the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, ordered supplies to be suspended, and the one resupply route through Gornji Vakuf was in any case closed yesterday by weather and war.

Tomorrow there will be a meeting in Geneva of the leaders of the three warring sides in Bosnia and their military commanders. The UNHCR said on 8 November that it was prepared to start convoys again. But no aid has moved and now the snow has come.

'Even with the best will in the world, if they say 'OK, bring your convoys', we're still into the problem of roads. This is an early winter, isn't it? I predict a wicked winter,' said Mr Hollingworth.

The only all-weather route into central Bosnia, the Mostar road, has been unusable for months and its bridges have been destroyed. The only other route, the mountain road through Gornji Vakuf, is closed by what appears to be a big offensive by the Bosnian Croat HVO, which began on Monday morning. North of Gornji Vakuf 2ft of snow had fallen and the British UN troops responsible for the route advised against attempting to move north or south.

Mr Hollingworth said the UN needed to move an absolute minimum of 3,000 tons of aid a month into central Bosnia, with 7,000 tons to feed everyone. At the moment none is moving.

'I can't predict we'll be as lucky as last year. With every twist and turn here there are more problems. Every day is a worse day. My view is that Gornji Vakuf will be closed for some time either by weather or war. It will be nastier this year because it's a harder winter and if we don't get aid in there will be lots of deaths.'

Yesterday in Zenica cabbages were selling for 1 deutschmark - the local hard currency - per kilo. The average person earns DM3 a month. We passed people dragging furniture, stoves and television sets to sell. In some places, people have been digging coal out of disused workings to augment their fuel reserves.

Some Muslim activists have been at work in Zenica, and last week detained a BBC television crew. Yesterday an Austrian crew was approached by a bearded member of the so-called Mujahedin, from Tunis. He asked why the United States, which bought so much oil from the Arab world and fought a war to defend oil supplies in Saudi Arabia, did nothing to help Muslims in Bosnia.