War blocks winter supplies: Rations and warm clothing for British troops held up - UN is criticised for 'flouting rules of war'

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The Independent Online
PREMATURE snowfall and Muslim-Croat battles have left British forces in central Bosnia without basic winter protection including boots, hats, mittens and smocks. Sources at the main base in Vitez said it had only eight days' supply of fresh food and 15 days' worth of tinned battlefield food, some of which is already being rationed.

The food, clothes and other equipment are stuck south of the battle line between Muslims and Croats. The British United Nations contingent, comprising 800 soldiers in Vitez and 160 at Gornji Vakuf to the south, cannot replenish its supplies unless the road from Split on Croatia's Adriatic coast is open.

In an effort to enlist Croatian help in opening the road, the British commander, Brigadier John Reith, yesterday met Croatia's Defence Minister, Gojko Susak and the new head of the Bosnian Croat HVO forces, Lieutenant-General Ante Roso, who was recently in charge of Croatia's special forces unit.

Brigadier Reith and General Roso agreed the opening of the road from Split tomorrow morning, subject to confirmation by the commander of UN Forces in Bosnia, Lieutenant- General Francis Briquemont. The Royal Engineers are due to start clearing the road today, ready for a convoy of military vehicles carrying UNHCR supplies tomorrow.

Gornji Vakuf was quiet yesterday but the British outstation there reported one artillery, mortar or rocket impact every 15 seconds in the Dobrosin valley to the east, where the Croatian HVO militia appeared to be making its main effort.

Two days ago, the HVO attempted a helicopter operation north of Gornji Vakuf. British military sources had no details but said the HVO may have dropped their troops in the wrong place and they were attacked by the Bosnian army.

The chief UNHCR officer in the area, Larry Hollingworth, has put forward a plan to drop aid at key points in central Bosnia using convoys running from Banja Luka starting today and continuing until Saturday. The plan targets key centres and is partly intended to forestall civil unrest as the severe winter tightens its grip.

The snowfall has caught about 50 British Warrior fighting vehicles, each weighing 30 tons, without the special tracks needed to give a firm grip on ice and fine dry snow. The soldiers are also awaiting Matterhorn boots, Arctic hats, gaiters, smocks and mittens.

The UN said that, after last Thursday's Geneva agreement between the Serbs, Croats and Muslims, four aid convoys to the Muslim stronghold of Zenica would run this week. All would pass through Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia, one departing from Zagreb and three from Banja Luka.

The decision coincides with an increasing willingness by the UN and the European Union, whose foreign ministers met yesterday in Luxembourg, to offer concessions to the Serbs in exchange for Serbian concessions to the Muslims. Some observers believe the UN and the British may be willing to see the route from the sea closed, with all aid passing through Serbian areas.

The sources said the first day after an agreement to reopen the route was finalised would be needed for engineers to check the routes, which have probably deteriorated because of the early, sharp winter, reportedly the coldest November in these parts since 1942. The next day, military supply convoys could run, with UN aid convoys following on the third.

UN military sources believe the closure of the road was intended to mask movements of several hundred Bosnian Croat troops, plus tanks, multiple rocket launchers and artillery and to leave the road - which is a supply route for the HVO as well as the UN - free for such movements. British sources say that, despite the Nato aircraft flying overhead and the sophisticated surveillance methods available, they have no idea what is happening in the forests east of Gornji Vakuf.

The HVO is believed to be trying to push east to link up with the Croatian pocket round Kiseljak, which, in turn, has launched attacks north- west, in the Fojnica area, to link up with the Vitez pocket.

Some sources believe that even though the operation may have ground to a halt in the early severe weather, the Croats have been unwilling to let UN troops up or down the route because they do not want to admit that it has stalled.

However, the route, improved and carved through the mountains by the Royal Engineers, is probably deteriorating in the severe conditions and the HVO may now feel they will benefit from letting the British sappers back on to it to keep it open.

(Map omitted)