Bosnian Army, Desperate for Defenders, Delays Red Cross Evacuation With PM-Serb Air Force, Bjt
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ The Bosnian army has forbidden men and women to leave this besieged city if they are healthy enough to defend it - a move that is hampering a Red Cross plan to evacuate 5,000 people.
The Muslim-led army said in a statement broadcast on Sarajevo radio Thursday that able-bodied men between the ages of 18-65 and women between 18-60 were forbidden to leave without clearance from military doctors.
Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, is surrounded by Serb rebels who shell it regularly, and faces severe food and water shortages as a brutal winter approaches. Most residents are also without heat.
Red Cross officials had planned to evacuate 5,000 sick, elderly and young people by convoy on Friday. But Pero Butiga, president of the Red Cross of Bosnia-Herzegovina, told the radio that the departure has been postponed indefinitely.
He said the delay was the result of an agreement with the army but he gave no details. But the army statement, which came later, denied that an agreement had been made.
The vague and somewhat contradictory statements suggested that the convoy was being delayed because the army wants to verify that no potential defenders were trying to flee.
Such a move would be consistent with the grim realities in Bosnia, where ethnic Serbs rebelled against a decision by majority Muslims and ethnic Croats in February to secede from Serbia-dominated federal Yugoslavia.
The Serbs, far superior in arms, now control 70 percent of the former Yugoslav republic. Sarajevo is the last major prize in the war, and many civilians, fearful that the capital will fall, are desperate to leave.
After months of painstaking negotiations with the warring parties, Red Cross officials had been optimistic that 3,000 ethnic Muslims and Croats would be allowed to leave for the Croatian port of Split and for 2,000 ethnic Serbs to head for Belgrade.
It was to have been the biggest exodus from Sarajevo since May 19, and limited to the disabled, the elderly and children who had guaranteed sponsors elsewhere.
For days, the Red Cross office has been flooded by hopeful applicants, and on Thursday more than 600 people were waiting when the office opened at 8 a.m.
Although many city residents were skeptical, convoy organizer Rafael Tomic told The Associated Press Wednesday that he was certain the convoy would leave.
″This is the only thing people have been talking about for days,″ he said. ″Every parent in Sarajevo hopes that they can get their children out of this hell.″
The convoy was negotiated with a Serb liaison official at the U.N. Protection Force in Sarajevo and was to have a U.N. armored escort. But Tomic admitted that he could not be sure of the safety of evacuees passing through Serb lines, and asked foreign journalists to accompany the convoy to discourage attacks.
But many parents thought the dangers of keeping their children in Sarajevo were greater than those of making the trip out.
″It’s extremely important to me,″ said Sajma Pirgo, a nurse pressed against the door of the Red Cross office Wednesday trying to obtain a place for her 5-year-old daughter, Jasna.
″These are no living conditions for a child,″ she said. ″In a month it will be cold. There is no heating and I don’t have any food. There is not even wood for a fire.″
Mrs. Pirgo’s brother, who lives in Croatia, has agreed to take Jasna.
But the separation will be painful.
″I have already started crying,″ said Mrs. Pirgo, who herself does not want to leave.
″I love this city, I was born in this city, and I don’t want to give up everything I have just like that,″ she said.
According to Tomic, the plan was for 3,000 people in 130 cars and 35 buses to go in the first column through Serb-held Ilidza to Kiselak, about 20 miles northwest of Sarajevo, which is under Croat control.
When they had successfully crossed the last Serb checkpoint, a second group of 2,000 mainly ethnic Serbs would leave for Belgrade.