SARAJEVO airport was closed to all flights yesterday after two United Nations aid planes leaving the Bosnian capital were hit by gun fire. The suspension of the air lift, a Bosnian Serb ban on UN convoys travelling through its territory and renewed fighting north of Sarajevo threaten to derail the UN's peace-keeping and humanitarian missions in Bosnia. Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, the UN commander in Bosnia, is to hold talks with both warring factions in an attempt to keep the faltering peace process on track.
Two planes that had delivered aid to Sarajevo yesterday were found to have bullet holes when they landed at Split in Croatia and at Ancona in Italy, after the flight from Bosnia. Sarajevo airport, which is positioned in an awkward location at a frontline crossroads, was put on a higher state of alert and was closed to all air traffic. French peace-keepers on patrol there reported an increase in sniping in the area.
The UN fears that fighting around the towns of Ilijas and Visoko, north of Sarajevo, where the frontline bisects the 20km (12-mile) heavy-weapons exclusion zone around Sarajevo, could infect the cordon sanitaire around the Bosnian capital and provoke a descent into total war. Troop movements have been reported in the area; the UN reported 2,000 to 3,000 Bosnian soldiers and an unknown number of Serbs, who were moving apparently to reinforce Serb-held lines between Ilijas and Visoko. Artillery exchanges continued yesterday south of Vares, where the Muslim-led government army has pushed its lines about three miles forward in the past few days. The Serbs said they had removed a T-84 tank that was spotted inside the zone by Canadian peace-keepers.
Although the fighting has died down since Tuesday, when the UN warned both sides to stop shelling inside the exclusion zone, UN officials fear the zone would crumble under the weight of a renewed offensive. 'It worries me that any upsurge in the level of conflict has a knock-on effect somewhere else,' General Rose said yesterday. 'It's low-level fighting but the effects are enormous.'
Last week the Serbs seized several heavy weapons guarded by the UN, claiming they needed them to defend their territory against a Bosnian attack. Nato responded with an air strike and the guns were returned to UN collection sites.
General Rose was due to meet the Bosnian Serb comander, General Ratko Mladic, today. The message, sources said, was that if General Mladic's men did not stop sniping, shelling and shooting at planes, the world would conclude that there was no hope of peace and the UN would withdraw. The Sarajevo government is likely to hear a similar homily tomorrow, when General Rose meets the Bosnian commander, General Rasim Delic.
As for humanitarian aid, the UN remains at the mercy of the Bosnian Serbs. They have barred all UN convoys to Sarajevo for weeks and no supplies have reached the vulnerable Muslim eastern enclaves since the end of July. Stocks are running dangerously low. 'It is pretty serious,' said Major Rob Annink, a spokesman in Sarajevo, adding that Dutch peace-keepers in Srebrenica 'have stopped all vehicle movements to conserve fuel'.
In Gorazde, British troops are eating army rations because they have run out of fresh food. Residents in Sarajevo will this week receive a two-day supply to last for two weeks, while Srebrenica, Gorazde and Zepa have supplies for about 10 days. No one will starve - even in urban Sarajevo almost every inch of spare ground is covered in vegetable patches - but the UN fears many will run out of the basics, such as oil, flour and sugar.