BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Shaken United Nations peacekeeping troops who escaped from besieged Sarajevo recounted sadly yesterday how the war they came to quell turned its vicious guns on their mission of mercy.
The blue-helmeted soldiers from Argentina, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Holland, Kenya, Poland, Russia and Sweden had hoped to keep old Yugoslavia's warring ethnic nations from killing each other.
Instead, the bloody conflict that for nearly a year has defied most world appeals for peace exploded in their faces, trapping them in Sarajevo, the savaged capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. For days, they have been jeered, shelled, sniped at and even held at gunpoint, mostly by Serb irregular militias.
"I regret leaving Sarajevo, because it's not a humiliation for the U.N., it's a failure for peace," said a discouraged French Gen. Philippe Morillion, deputy commander of the multinational U.N. Protection Force (UNPROFOR) that had tried to set up its headquarters there.
The bulk of that command center, nearly 300 soldiers, withdrew Saturday and yesterday.
Western diplomats in Belgrade said the setback had troubling implications for the credibility and role of the U.N. in a post-Cold War world struggling to come to terms with the violent escalation ethnic nationalism.
"Will international peacekeeping itself be discredited?" asked one foreign analyst. "If this situation is too difficult, will the U.N. only be confined to minor wars and negotiating minor cease-fires?"
The immediate impact of the U.N. exodus was felt by the helpless civilians still trapped in Sarajevo, a city of 560,000 with minimal electricity, food and water supplies. Serb women standing in their gardens on the city's outskirts wept openly as one U.N. convoy pulled out.
Some 1,300 people have died and 700,000 have been left homeless since war broke out in ethnically mixed Bosnia after the former Yugoslav republic declared independence two months ago over the objections of its large Serbian minority.
"It was terrible to see the way things have gone. We had the impression that the Bosnian population was committing suicide," General Morillion said.
"When we arrived, Sarajevo was a hustling, bustling city," said British Maj. Tom Jefferson, 38, assistant force medical officer who went in with the first contingent on March 22. "It's now a place like what I imagine Beirut to be, though I've never been there."
Much of the force was confined to a bomb shelter below the Hotel Stoicevac and the basement of an apartment house on the outskirts of Sarajevo for 48 hours starting last Thursday, he said. Up above, fighting and shelling went on for two days between Muslims and Serbs.
When they tried to move to another locations, Major Jefferson said, Serb militias held U.N. forces at gunpoint in tense standoffs, ordered them to help collect the bodies of dead Serbs and even poked guns in their ribs.
Amazingly, only one U.N. soldier was wounded, and he only slightly. Nevertheless, continuing the peace mission under such conditions will be "impossible" for now, General Morillion told reporters after the first U.N. convoy with nearly 50 vehicles and 200 military and civilian personnel arrived in Belgrade early yesterday morning.
The trip, usually four hours, took 15 hours because of all the checkpoints. A full moon illuminated the white U.N. vehicles, some of which had bullet holes or missing windows from the fighting.
Later yesterday another U.N. contingent of about 80 people in 40 vehicles left Sarajevo during a lull in the fighting. Heavier vehicles headed for Zagreb, the Croatian capital. The rest, including UNPROFOR commander Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar and his staff, came to Belgrade.
There was never any mandate for the U.N. troops' presence in Bosnia. Nonetheless, about 120 monitors and liaison officers stayed behind in Sarajevo yesterday.
They will continue to help collect wounded, enable refugees to leave and attempt to negotiate often short-lived truces between rival Serb fighters and allied Muslims and Bosnian Croats.
Sarajevo had been chosen as the headquarters of the 14,000-member multinational peace-keeping force deployed in neighboring Croatia to separate Serbs and Croats after their bloody civil war late last year claimed some 10,000 lives.
Croatia's tragedy then made Sarajevo seem a tranquil, more neutral haven. Its rich mix of ethnic Serbs, Croats, Slavic Muslims, Jews and other minorities had made it exemplary of the old Yugoslavia, but it was also an explosive ethnic tinderbox.