29 May 1995.
By George Jahn
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Bosnia’s foreign minister and three colleagues were killed Sunday when rebel Serbs shot down their helicopter near the Bosnian-Croatian border. Serbs, defying escalating global condemnation, also seized more U.N. peacekeepers.
Croatian Serb forces claimed responsibility for downing the chopper, the Croatian Serb news agency ISKRA reported. The helicopter had traveled 10 miles from the besieged Bosnian government-held enclave of Bihac when it crashed just across the Croatian border.
Bosnian Serbs, confident U.N. hostages would shield them from a repeat of last week’s NATO air raids on ammunition dumps, seized 33 more peacekeepers, all British, near Gorazde in eastern Bosnia. Five of the captured peacekeepers were later injured in a car accident, Bosnian Serb TV said.
By nightfall, the Serbs held 317 U.N. personnel, the U.N. said, including more than 200 peacekeepers, most of them French, surrounded near Sarajevo and 30 U.N. monitors, some of whom were chained to potential NATO targets.
As the Serbs upped the stakes, frustrated U.N. officials demanded their masters in the world’s capitals tell them what to do: stand tough or back away in the most humiliating retreat of the United Nations’ 50-year history.
“We hope that we will get some guidance and backing,” said U.N. spokesman Alexander Ivanko. “A lot of thought will have to go into our next step, because it will probably be the most important step the international community makes in this century.”
Bosnian Foreign Minister Irfan Ljubijankic, a 42-year-old Muslim, died when his helicopter was shot down over Croatian Serb positions near Bihac in the northwest, Bosnian officials and U.N. spokesman Maj. William Taylor said. Taylor said it crashed near the town of Slunj, just west of the border.
Ljubijankic was the most senior Bosnian government official killed in more than three years of war.
Also killed were an assistant justice minister, an official at Bosnia’s Zagreb embassy, an aide to Ljubijankic and his helicopter crew, said Miranda Sidran of the Bosnian Embassy in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.
“We lost four brave men today who were completely aware of the risk and insisted on going to Bihac,” Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic said in Zagreb.
The Muslim-led government forces in Bihac are battling a diverse army of rebel Serbs from Bosnia and neighboring Croatia, as well as renegade Muslims who reject the Sarajevo government.
On Sunday, the Serbs also shot at NATO planes and lobbed 10 shells into the U.N. “safe area” of Tuzla, decapitating one man at a bus stop and wounding anotehr. Tuzla, a northern government stronghold, was the site where 71 people were killed and 151 wounded by a Serb cluster bomb Thursday.
In Sarajevo, the Serbs who severed electricity and water supplies, on Friday cut the natural gas supply too, government radio said. Without it, the city bakery could not bake the bread that serves as the staple for most residents, government radio said.
But a standoff between Serbs and French peacekeepers in Sarajevo ended when the Serbs withdrew overnight for reasons not immediately clear. French marines resumed control of a disputed bridge.
Four Serbs captured by the French during the standoff remained in U.N. hands. Serb commander Gen. Ratko Mladic told the United Nations that detained peacekeepers would be treated better if the Serbs were freed by 6 p.m. Sunday, said U.N. spokesman Lt. Col. Gary Coward. They were not released.
Across Europe, Western leaders med to discuss Bosnia. No decisions were expected at least until NATo foreign ministers meet Tuesday in the Netherlands.
“The blue helmets either must be given the means to fulfill their mission, or they must be withdrawn,” German Defense Minister Volker Ruehe was quoted as saying in Monday editions of Die Welt.
The German newspaper also reported, without naming sources, that American, British, French and Canadian commandos were preparing for possible rescue raids.
France, which has lost 39 soldiers in the former Yugoslavia and has the biggest contingent in the 20,000-strong U.N. force, dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Adriatic Seat to back its calls for more robust defense. The carrier, the Foch, was accompanied by a missile-launching frigate and two transports.
In London, Britain’s government said Sunday it will send more troops and hardware to Bosnia and warned the Bosnian Serbs of “very severe consequences” if captive U.N. observers are harmed. The deployment of 5,000 soldiers would bring the British force in Bosnia to more than 8,000.
Sirens sounded in the Bosnian Serb headquarters of Pale Sunday morning as Serb gunners fired anti-aircraft cannon at NATO jets overhead. People ran for cover, but no strikes were reported and NATO reported no planes hit.
The U.N. commander in Bosnia, British Lt. Gen. Rupert Smith, told Serb commander Gen. Ratko Mladic that the seizure of U.N. personnel and the chaining of some as human shields at potential NATO targets may be investigated as a war crime, Ivanko said.
Mladic is already named as a war crimes suspect. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, also under investigation for war crimes, is so isolated that he has little choice but to fight on.
In another development, up to 100 Croats in the village of Saglas in northwestern Bosnia were bused away by Serb authorities on Saturday, Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the U.N. High commissioner for Refugees, said Sunday. It was not clear where they were taken.
Serb soldiers have expelled scores of Roman Catholic Croats from Serb-held territory in Bosnia in apparent revenge for airstrikes.
More than 200,000 people are believed dead or missing since Bosnia’s war began in April 1992 when Bosnian Serbs rebelled against a government decision to secede from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.