Pope to go ahead with Sarajevo visit

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The Independent Online
CASTEL GANDOLFO (Reuter) - The Pope said yesterday he would go ahead with a dramatic visit to Sarajevo next week provided security could be guaranteed for the local population.

'I truly hope, if there are sufficient guarantees for the security of the local population, to be able to go to that city which has been battered - and which is so dear to me - as a pilgrim of peace,' the 74-year-old pontiff said at the papal summer resort south of Rome. 'I put this trip in the hands of the Virgin Mother and ask her to ensure that all goes ahead without danger to the population.'

The Pope plans to arrive in mainly-Muslim Sarajevo on Thursday for what the Vatican considers will be the most dangerous visit of his pontificate. Earlier yesterday, Bosnian Serb leaders refused to guarantee the Pope's safety, despite an appeal from a Vatican envoy.

The Bosnian Serb Foreign Minister, Aleksa Buha, said: 'The Serbs informed the (Vatican) envoy they could not take responsibility for possible incidents from the Muslim side.'

Bosnian Serb leaders have told the Vatican privately that the Pope's presence in Bosnia is 'highly undesirable'. The Orthodox Serbs believe the Vatican took sides in the break-up of Yugoslavia in favour of the Roman Catholic Croats.

Colonel Bernard Lavarsuk a spokesman for the UN Protection Force in Sarajevo, said the United Nations would do its best to ensure the Pope's safety during the planned trip but security risks were high. 'The airport is protected by the UN but the surrounding areas are not under our control,' he said. Sarajevo airport, where the Pope will land and take off, is surrounded by anti-aircraft guns of both Serbs and Muslims and has been closed frequently since July because of firing on UN relief aircraft. A rogue anti-aircraft gun operated by Bosnian Serb forces is currently mounted on the back of a truck in Sarajevo's Vrutici suburb, less than a mile from the airport.

The Pope's trip to Sarajevo on 8 September coincides with the day the Virgin Mary's birth is celebrated. He believes Mary saved his life when he was shot by the Turkish gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, in St Peter's Square on 13 May 1981.