Last hostages are freed as Serb shelling kills seven

Battle for Sarajevo: The government and the people are determined to free their city even as more die collecting water
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EMMA DALY

Sarajevo

Yesterday was a relatively successful day for the Bosnian Serb leadership, despite the continuing Bosnian offensive. Not only did the authorities in Pale secure the release of four soldiers held prisoner by the United Nations, in exchange for 26 UN hostages, they also killed seven Sarajevans queueing for water.

Video pictures smuggled out from the site showed a familiar Sarajevo scene: dozens of plastic water bottles spattered with blood, clumps of flesh hanging from the pump, shoes strewn about. The shell flew through a hole in the roof of an abandoned bombed-out school in the western suburb of Dobrinja, exploding among the residents queuing for water. Seven died and 12 were wounded.

Men covered the dead with rough grey army blankets at the scene as the air raid sirens sounded, a little too late. The faces of the victims showed expressions frozen in surprise, fear, and, in the case of one elderly man, a kind of sorrowful resignation. A well-dressed woman lay, eyes open, her forehead smashed open, her feet shoeless. At least one victim had no face.

The shell shattered the calm around Sarajevo - the lull in fighting had encouraged those in need to leave the shelter of their homes for food and water. Although the UN has told the Bosnian government it cannot expect Nato intervention in the case of civilian deaths resulting from its offensive, the prospects for air strikes have increased with the UN's withdrawal of almost 100 peace-keepers from Serb-held weapons sites. The troops should no longer be vulnerable to Serb revenge hostage-taking.

"It was a pretty good return on an investment - we got all of our people back, including 67 from the weapons collection point, in exchange for four Serbs," said one UN official.

The remaining UN soldiers - 11 Canadians and 15 UN military observers - were finally freed by the authorities in Pale, the Bosnian Serb "capital" yesterday, shortly after the release of four Serb soldiers captured by French troops on 27 May in an attack to retake UN positions captured by Serbs. The four were held for several days, until French troops allowed the Bosnian government to interrogate them, sources said, then moved to the UN-controlled airport. The Serbs were "roughed up" at some stage, one witness said, but were otherwise in good health when handed over yesterday.

Despite official UN denials of a hostage-swap, the "coincidence" of releasing the four Serb prisoners at 2pm, and the departure about 30 minutes later of a bus containing 26 peace-keepers from Pale to the border town of Zvornik was too great for observers in Sarajevo to credit.

The fighting in the hills around the city subsided over the week-end. So far the Serb response has been relatively restrained, especially given the UN reports of Serb losses in positions around the city, but no one is sure why the fighting has died down.

"It's a military secret - probably only the commanders understand," said Mirza Selimbegovic, a 25-year-old soldier recovering in hospital from the effects of hepatitis and the wound he sustained on Friday when a shell crashed through his ward. "I'm counting on the offensive continuing ... I'm sorry I'm not with my unit and that I can't go forward with them."

The lukewarm pleas of restraint from the international community, the calls for a renewal of the non-existent peace process, are met with contempt in Sarajevo. "We're not paying much attention to that. In our situation we have no obligation to look at what the world is thinking, the world that has done nothing for Sarajevo," President Alija Izetbegovic said on Saturday night. "We won't allow Sarajevo to be strangled, much less to be captured. Now or later, depending on how the situation develops, I think we will liberate the city."

The siege also affects the peace-keepers - and UN officials are suggesting again that they may have to force a route open for supplies into Sarajevo. "There are two choices: to bring the food and supplies to the people, irrespective of the position of the warring parties - and that would imply the use of an element of force," said the UN spokesman, Gary Coward. "Or you could take the people to the food [withdrawing them], although in the case of Sarajevo that's very unlikely."

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