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UN aid convoy reaches Mostar's starving Muslims

THE MISERABLE plight of 55,000 Muslims under siege in eastern Mostar with almost no food or water was exposed yesterday when United Nations officials with a 'symbolic' aid convoy managed to cross the front lines manned by the Bosnian Croats. A UN official accused them of 'killing the population' with their siege.

'The situation is extremely desperate,' said Lyndall Sachs, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Sarajevo, after hearing an account of conditions in the city from a UNHCR colleague in the Mostar convoy. 'He has been told that if there is no food convoy within five days, people will die of starvation. He does not think this is an exaggeration,' she said.

The Muslim-held east bank of the city came under fresh attack from Croat forces last night after the UN aid convoy left. As darkness fell, machine-gun fire ripped into the Muslim quarter from Croat positions on the opposite side of the Neretva river, which divides the city. Some of the fire appeared to be aimed at a makeshift hospital where the relief convoy left a small consignment of medical supplies earlier in the day.

Ms Sachs said the UN believes there are 55,000 Muslims trapped in the area, far more than had been thought, of whom 30,000 are refugees.

Muslims cheered at the sight of the convoy, the first sign of help for almost three months. It was a 'token gesture', a few medical supplies that will be followed by a larger aid consignment - if the Bosnian Croats, who hold the western half of the city and the surrounding countryside, agree to let one pass. Ms Sachs said that the Croats had not agreed to allow in a proper aid shipment. 'The Croats are starving the population, they are killing the population,' she said.

Her colleague visited the improvised hospital, where doctors are performing 15 to 20 operations a day, and 80 per cent of patients are wounded civilians. The city has 500 cases of severe diarrhoea. There is no water supply, almost no food, little fuel and no electricity. No building has escaped war damage, and only 30 to 40 per cent are habitable.

'The population is so short of basic food that no one asked my colleague for cigarettes or sweets. All they wanted was wheat flour,' Ms Sachs said.

If the UN gets the green light, 'we can prepare a proper convoy in 24 hours'. If not, it may have to use air drops to deliver aid.

The Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, waited again for an aid convoy that has been held up by Bosnian Croats for three days, Ms Sachs said. But 21 elderly Bosnian Jews left the city by bus, and five patients were flown to the Netherlands.

(Photograph omitted)