General Winter takes command in Bosnia: Snowbound warriors must use horses and sledges

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The Independent Online
THE HISTORY of warfare is marching backwards in central Bosnia. Horses are back. Petrol in the Croatian enclave around Vitez costs 40 Deutschmarks a litre on the black market - when supplies, often stolen from the UN, the aid organisations or the press, can be found at all.

Winter has come early this year. Central Bosnian villages, with their steep-roofed houses and locals using anything that will burn for fuel, have turned into scenes from Breughel's Hunters in the Snow. On Thursday, slithering in our four- wheel-drive cars up the icy road that winds south to Gornji Vakuf through ground held by the Bosnian army, we passed several horsedrawn wagons, one or two soldiers riding horses, and others dragging supplies on sledges. Even under the snow, the horses find grass.

The Croatian pocket in Vitez has been cut off for months by the army. For most of last week, the British UN garrison, which had moved supplies and people up and down the road through the battle lines, was also cut off. The Croatian militia (HVO), which holds the southern part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has been moving an impressive array of equipment northwards, including mortars and multiple rocket launchers. On Monday, it began a bombardment that looked as if it might herald the biggest offensive for months.

On the first day, 550 rounds landed around the British base at Gornji Vakuf, dropping to 190 on the second. After that, the bombardment subsided. The fighting - or prospect of fighting - closed the road south of Gornji.

Yesterday the British were still negotiating with the deputy commander of the whole HVO, Major General Zarko Tole. He said he would open the route if the British 'kept the peace' throughout central Bosnia. In the middle of a three-sided civil war, that would be an impossibly ambitious task.

The HVO offensive waned because of the difficulty of keeping poorly fed men in the field when night-time temperatures had dropped to minus 10C. In a Warrior infantry fighting vehicle, travelling into the wind at 30mph, British troops can face a temperature, adjusted for wind chill, of minus 40C or 50C. The British are well-fed, at least, but the sudden chill has caught them without some of their winter kit. They are adequately equipped for a severe British winter, but special outer garments, thermal underwear and new winter tracks for the Warriors are all stuck at Split.

No wonder pre-industrial armies took to winter quarters. This war is medieval in its pace and in the caution with which the warring sides move (not to mention the fickleness of its alliances and its frequent barbarities). Any modern army ordered to take the Vitez pocket, a kidney-shaped area 15 miles long and two wide at its narrowest, would do so in hours.

Croatian tactics appear to be aimed at linking up with the Kiseljak pocket, a second Croatian enclave in Muslim-controlled central Bosnia. If the HVO seized these routes, it would be difficult for the Bosnian army to move supplies from north to south, across the grain of the land. It would also undermine its claim to have the right of access to the Adriatic.

Although the HVO has heavier weapons, the Bosnian army seems to be better organised and to have better fighters. Moving south to Gornji on Thursday, we halted at a Bosnian army checkpoint. As Croatian mortar bombs landed behind us, one of the Bosnian military policemen chatted to us in English.

Zec, who has a two-year-old daughter safely in Sweden, said the war was crazy. 'We must all live together.' There was some fraternisation between the HVO and the Bosnian army, but conditions were tough. The troops were given tea and bread every morning, and some potatoes, but nothing else - not even salt. They last received oil and flour from the UN two months ago. 'Can you do something for me?' he asked suddenly. 'Say hello to my friend Steve Price, in Ipswich.'

(Photograph omitted)