'You're our guarantee: if you leave, they will massacre us'

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The Independent Online
MOSTAR - A UN aid convoy slipped past human roadblocks of angry Croats yesterday to reach tens of thousands of desperate Muslims. But it faced more problems trying to leave as Muslim demonstrators and troops fired into the air in an attempt to keep the convoy in eastern Mostar.

The lorries, piled high with food and medicine, crossed into the Muslim sector of Mostar and were unloaded after daybreak. But they were held up from leaving by soldiers and hundreds of demonstrators who apparently believed that the convoy offered protection against further Croatian shelling. As the 19-vehicle convoy prepared to leave, soldiers fired into the air and blocked the road out of the Muslim enclave in the eastern sector of the city with a bus.

Hundreds of women and children descended on the convoy, pleading for it to stay. Some carried signs reading: 'Why did the world forget us?' and 'You're our guarantee.' One woman cried: 'If you leave, they are going to massacre us.'

The last of several conditions made by the besieging crowd for the convoy to proceed was reportedly the evacuation of wounded children from Mostar's Muslim sector, and an unconfirmed report said two children were to be evacuated. They included Selma Handzar, 9, who lost her right arm and has serious facial injuries, and a boy with a wounded leg, who was identified as Mirza Handzar.

Agreement to let the trucks leave was finally reached after lengthy negotiations between Cedric Thornberry, the UN Civil Affairs officer for former Yugoslavia, and local officials. At one point, Mr Thornberry angrily threatened to stop all humanitarian aid to Bosnia unless the lorries were allowed to depart, despite the agreement, but the convoy was still stalled last night. About 30 people, fearing that the Croats would renew their attack if the convoy left, sat down in front of the vehicles and refused to move. Mr Thornberry criticised the delay, saying the convoy and its people were 'held as hostages, which is completely unacceptable'.

Earlier, thousands of exhausted and malnourished people, who had received no substantial aid for more than two months, mobbed the lorries as they pulled to a stop before splitting up - some unloaded at the Muslims' rudimentary hospital, others at two warehouses. The crowd pounded on the windows of the lorries, demanding cigarettes and chocolate. Many grinned wildly, recognising the end of their ordeal.

Zlatko Guzin said the hospital, which can be approached only across a square covered by Croatian snipers, had one day's supply of blood left, and had run out of oxygen. Dr Guzin said he had lost 10kg (22lb) over the past three months.

The aid convoy's arrival had been delayed for days. On Wednesday, less than 10 miles west of Mostar, it had to negotiate its way past Croatian women who sat in the road singing hymns and demanding that the trucks be searched for arms. 'They are feeding the Muslims, who are then killing us,' sobbed Anica Golamac, one of the protesters.

One hundred and seventy-five tons of medicines, powdered milk, baby food and other food went to the eastern sector, where 55,000 Muslims have been trapped for more than two months. Another 80 to 90 tons went to the Croat-controlled west bank of the Neretva River. Those trucks left without incident.

Peter Janssen, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Sarajevo, said another convoy would be sent as soon as possible. 'Obviously, the idea is to have a regular lifeline into the city,' he said.