Innocents trapped by deadly red tape

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THE bloody farce of central Bosnia caught up with a hapless party of Muslim and Croat civilians yesterday, with British peace-keeping troops in a leading role.

The saga began on Friday night, as a convoy of buses carrying about 100 people - workers and their families returning to their home town, Tuzla, from Germany, Austria and Croatia - passed near the British base at Vitez. The civilians hoped they would be relatively safe once they reached Tuzla, one of the towns designated by the UN as a 'safe haven' from the fighting.

What the workers and the relief agency which had given them documents did not know, or failed to take sufficiently into account, was the rising mistrust in central Bosnian towns between Muslims and Croats, once allies against the Serbs. Tension between the two communities has flared into fighting in such places as Travnik, near which the convoy had to pass.

Their buses came under fire at a Croatian forces checkpoint. One took a direct hit from a mortar, killing two people and injuring several others. The rest fled six miles from the scene and tried to throw themselves on the mercy of British troops from the 1st Battalion, The Prince of Wales Own Yorkshire Regiment, but a captain barred the way. 'We are not responsible for the area outside the camp,' he told the crowd, which included women holding babies and men with bloodied clothing from freshly treated wounds. 'You are the responsibility of the local (Croat) authorities. There is nothing I can do.'

Officers said their United Nations mandate did not extend to allowing the civilians to shelter in the base.

Some British soldiers, apparently disobeying orders, smuggled food and blankets to the victims, who spent a damp, chilly night crouched on the road outside, with sniper fire close by.

Yesterday morning the British forces relented to the extent of escorting the families in military vehicles to Zenica, where they were handed over to UN relief workers.

While the Croat and Muslim civilians were vainly seeking help, British peace-keepers a short distance away in Travnik were risking their lives yesterday to bring together commanders from the two communities' forces. A ceasefire was eventually agreed after two days of heavy clashes.

'If the ceasefire holds, we will begin evacuating dead and wounded from the town and surrounding villages,' said Philip Watkins, a European Community monitor. The Croat commander was brought to the meeting in a British armoured vehicle. During the operation a Warrior vehicle was hit by small-arms fire, but no one was injured.

Commenting later on the civilian workers' tragic journey, Lieutenant-Colonel Alastair Duncan, the British battalion commander, said the civilians had entered a war zone against his advice. 'They could have moved on . . . they chose not to,' he said. 'They are not refugees. They entered the area of their own free will.'

In Belgrade, meanwhile, the Serbian authorities charged the opposition leader Vuk Draskovic and his wife, Danica, with seeking to overthrow the state, and remanded him in custody for 30 days pending inquiries into his role in bloody riots last week in which scores of people were injured and one policeman killed. Mr Draskovic, who was reported to have been beaten by police, faces charges which could jail him for a total of 25 years.

Bosnian Serb artillery pounded Gorazde, another 'safe haven' mocking the UN resolution. A new Security Council resolution adopted on Friday would commit up to 10,000 troops to guard the six 'safe areas' though critics say the plan will do little to stop Serb aggression.