Bosnian Serbs Free Remaining U.N. Hostages


Bosnian Serb rebels released the last of their U.N. captives Sunday, but the end of the hostage crisis came at a price: The United Nations was forced to free four Serbian prisoners.

“We are glad this crisis is over,” Canadian Capt. Patrick Rechner, a U.N. military observer, told reporters in the Bosnian Serb headquarters of Pale after the release of the 26 peacekeepers.

The crisis in Sarajevo, however, continued Sunday as an artillery shell slammed into a crowd waiting in line for water, killing at least seven people and wounding 11.

The rebel attack appeared to be in retaliation for an unprecedented military offensive launched by the Bosnian government’s army to ease the Bosnian Serb blockade around Sarajevo, the capital. It coincided with a U.N. decision to withdraw from Serb-held Bosnian territory, removing what little restraint the U.N. presence had represented there.

The government offensive, in its fourth day Sunday, had largely subsided to a sporadic level of harassing fire in the hills around Sarajevo, U.N. officials said. No significant gains or losses were reported.


Because the Serbs have cut off water and electricity to Sarajevo in an effort to punish and dominate the city, residents must venture outdoors to fill canisters with water from pumps and cisterns--even when doing so means risking their lives. The Serbs routinely target civilians in such locations as markets and graveyards.

Like thousands of Sarajevans trapped by the Serbs’ 38-month siege of this city, Vladimir Milogevic was waiting in line for water Sunday. He was wounded when the shell crashed into the queue near an elementary school in the Muslim-dominated Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja.

“We were desperate to get water, so we had to go out,” Milogevic said. “We knew the Serbs could see us, but what can you do?”

White plastic canisters and bodies were scattered on the bloody patio where the single shell hit.

Milogevic said the bombing site was exposed to Bosnian Serb fighters in hills just 300 yards away. He spoke to a Dutch radio reporter, one of only a handful of reporters who could reach the site before the Bosnian military blocked it off.

Several of the dead were elderly. One older woman, who had been at the head of the line pumping the water, wailed inconsolably for two friends, a husband and wife, who had been last in line. Doctors at the Dobrinja emergency hospital were reluctant to tell her that both her friends were dead.

Picking up water “is gambling your life,” Emir Ljubovic, 53, said as he filled bottles from a freshwater hose rigged in the underground parking garage of an apartment building.

Although the siege of Sarajevo has cut utilities periodically since the start of the war three years ago, the Serbs tightened their grip after North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes destroyed rebel ammunition bunkers last month.

In the wake of the NATO air strikes, the Serbs retaliated by taking more than 370 U.N. personnel hostage. On Sunday, the United Nations celebrated the release of the last of those hostages, but it was also forced to concede another defeat: It withdrew 67 peacekeepers from nine weapons depots and a number of observation posts in Serb-held territory around Sarajevo.

The move virtually eliminated U.N. troops from Serb-occupied parts of Bosnia.

The weapons depots had been used by the United Nations to collect heavy weaponry and artillery from Serbs as part of the enforcement of a “weapons-exclusion zone” meant to protect Sarajevo. Although the Serbs agreed to the restrictions, in recent weeks they have stolen hundreds of artillery pieces--or fired them from the U.N. posts.

The weapons-exclusion zone was intended to safeguard Sarajevo from precisely the kind of artillery fired Sunday on the residents lining up for water.

“The total exclusion zone has basically collapsed,” U.N. spokesman Alexander Ivanko said. “The security of U.N. personnel at those points was at risk.”

The Serbs released 15 U.N. military observers of 12 nationalities and 11 Canadian peacekeepers Sunday, putting them on a bus in Pale, nine miles southeast of Sarajevo. They were bound for Belgrade, capital of the rump Yugoslavia, said Nikola Koljevic, “vice president” of the self-declared Bosnian Serb Republic.

“Now they are free, and they are going to Yugoslavia,” he told reporters in Pale.

Early Sunday afternoon, the United Nations released four Bosnian Serb soldiers it had captured in a firefight between the rebels and French peacekeepers May 27. In the fight, which was waged for a bridge on the edge of Sarajevo, two French soldiers were killed.

The Bosnian Serbs had conditioned the release of the peacekeepers on the freedom of their four men. Publicly, U.N. officials said they had no legal basis for retaining the Serbian fighters. Privately, they conceded that it appeared the United Nations had struck a deal with Serbs who have killed, kidnaped and humiliated peacekeepers with evident impunity.

And in more bad news for peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said he does not believe the Senate will approve U.S. funds for a European-led rapid-reaction force.

He said French President Jacques Chirac personally tried to make a case for the force but failed. “I respect the people--the countries who have troops on the ground--and I respect the courage and bravery of those troops. But it’s a failed policy,” said Dole, commenting on the CBS-TV program “Face the Nation.”

“So how much more money do we put into a failed policy? We’ve put a couple of billion at least into that policy now. We’re spending a lot of money,” he said.

Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.