Two British sappers wounded in mortar attack at Sarajevo

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Two British Army sappers serving with United Nations peace-keeping forces were wounded by shrapnel near Sarajevo airport yesterday, the first British casualties of the war in the former Yugoslavia.

The two, of the 22nd Royal Engineers Regiment based in west Hampshire, suffered mainly superficial wounds and were able to walk from the scene. But one, with a leg wound, was expected to be evacuated from the Bosnian capital by the RAF last night.

The Ministry of Defence said the sappers had been digging a fortified trench for UN military observers when mortar shells landed nearby. It withheld their names. Britain at present has engineers and medical personnel in Sarajevo, but is preparing to send up to 1,800 ground troops to Bosnia to protect aid convoys, probably in northern Bosnia. Yesterday's first British casualties, though light, came as a sharp reminder of the dangers.

The mortar attack around the airport and artillery and small-arms duels elsewhere in Bosnia came four days before the London peace conference on the region. The mortar fire briefly forced closure of the airport to relief flights. When it reopened, incoming planes fired off chaff to divert any ground fire. None was reported.

The UN headquarters between the airport and the city also came under mortar fire. One shell thudded into the UN roof, sending blue- helmeted troops rushing for shelter, and three others hit a parking area outside. Two French soldiers were lightly wounded.

The barrage appeared to be a cynical welcome for the UN troops' new commander, Brigadier-General Ali Abdel-Razak Hussein of Egypt, who arrived minutes later. UN officials believe that they are not only caught in crossfire between local Bosnian defenders and Serb besiegers but are also being deliberately targeted.

Radio Sarajevo, controlled by the Bosnian presidency, reported that Bosnian Serb warplanes yesterday bombed another besieged city, Gorazde, south-east of the Bosnian capital. It said nine people had been killed and 50 wounded in the city, cut off for months until visited last weekend by a UN aid convoy. Up to 40,000 Muslims, including residents and refugees, are surrounded by Serb forces.

UN officers said yesterday that a Ukrainian soldier shot dead on Thursday had been targeted by a sniper from close range, probably within the barracks. The officials suspected one of the Bosnian Muslim fighters, who share the barracks with the UN forces, of firing the shot. It was the latest indication that the city's defenders may be trying to provoke outside military intervention, a possibility that is sending shivers through Whitehall as the British ground troops stand by.

John Major, co-chairman of next week's conference with the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is expected to call for tighter sanctions against Serbia. The German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, and the EC Commission President, Jacques Delors, made such calls yesterday.

Mr Delors said a military plan should be prepared to end the Serbian practice of 'ethnic cleansing'. 'Ethnic purification is a mad, racist ideology and if it prevails in Yugoslavia, I fear it may spread to other countries,' he said. 'We must tell the Serbs that if it continues, we will prepare for military intervention . . . the European Community has hesitated for too long.'

Mr Kinkel said he expected 'concrete decisions' on tighter sanctions at this week's conference. 'The Danube has to be shut down,' he said, referring to bargeloads of embargo- breaking goods to Serbia from Romania.

Mr Major is expected to open the conference on Wednesday by telling Yugoslavia's former republics they must respect five preconditions in return for international acceptance: no force, no 'ethnic cleansing', closure of detention camps, respect for frontiers and respect for ethnic minorities.

Under such world pressure, the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said yesterday he had ordered an end to 'ethnic cleansing' as well as an improvement in conditions at detention camps.

A spokesman for Bosnia's Muslim President, Alija Izetbegovic, rejected a report in yesterday's Independent that quoted UN officials as saying the shelling of a bread-line and two other attacks in Sarajevo may have been staged by the mainly Muslim city defenders as propaganda ploys. 'It is ridiculous to say we are shelling ourselves,' Kemar Muftich said.

(Photograph omitted)