Vendetta fear halts UK convoys

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

and REUTER

British aid convoys in central Bosnia have been suspended because it is feared that foreign Islamic fighters are hunting down Britons, a United Nations refugee official said yesterday.

The move followed an incident on Sunday when two Norwegian aid workers were held up at gunpoint by two men and threatened with execution.

The men let the Norwegians go when they discovered that they were not British, said Kris Janowski, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sarajevo.

One of the gunmen spoke Arabic and UN officials believe that he may be a mujahedin fighter - a volunteer from an Islamic country who joined the Muslim-led government's fight against Serb separatists.

The UN has linked the incident to the killing of a mujahedin fighter by a British UN soldier two weeks ago.

The soldier was guarding an armoured troop carrier during a reconnaissance patrol near Bugojno and opened fire when he believed that the man was about to shoot him, a UN spokesman said.

"They seem to have been looking for Britons. They may be carrying a grudge. It is alarming," Mr Janowski said.

A protest had been filed with the government, he added. The convoys affected are those to the government enclave of Tuzla. Mr Janowski said he expected them to start again in the next few days.

The reports underscore the continuing dangers a week before the Bosnia peace talks open in Ohio.

President Alija Izetbegovic yesterday raised the stakes by insisting that his Muslim-led government was winning the war, and that he would not accept the division of his country "in whatever packaging it may be served".

He told the UN that partition would simply lead to a restart of the fighting.

And if the talks were successful, he demanded that the international community deny reconstruction assistance to any party which refused to respect human rights.

The Bosnian leader was speaking as he and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia prepared to meet President Bill Clinton in a last round of bilateral summitry before the two leaders join President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia for negotiations at an air base in Dayton.

There are also growing signs of difficulties in organising the Nato-led force that will police any deal.

Tomorrow the United States and Russian defence ministers meet at the Pentagon to work out a formula for Russia to take part in the force, following the failure of Mr Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin to do so at their brief summit near New York on Monday.

No less troublesome for Mr Clinton is mounting congressional and public unease over plans to send 20,000 US troops to Bosnia to help police a settlement. A poll conducted for the USA Today newspaper indicated a narrow 50-44 margin in favour of US participation.

But that figure turns into a two-to-one majority against on the assumption that the force will take some casualties. Overwhelmingly the public believes that Mr Clinton should secure approval from Congress before sending soldiers, something the White House says it is not bound to do.

The Republican-dominated Congress continues to demonstrate a desire to push into the domain of foreign policy.

Yesterday Mr Clinton rejected a suggestion by the Republican Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, that President Milosevic should be barred from the peace talks, saying that it would undermine the peace process.

Senator Dole suggested last week that the United States should not grant a visa to Mr Milosevic for next week's talks, accusing him of being "the mastermind of ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia.

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