AN international operation to evacuate seriously wounded adults and children from Sarajevo has swung into action amid mounting public pressure on governments to broaden the scope of humanitarian relief in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The initial phase of the operation, described by Britain's main refugee organization as an important policy breakthrough, was expected to bring 41 war victims and their families to Britain, Sweden, and the Irish Republic for urgent treatment this weekend.
British Health Secretary Virginia Bottomley, who is helping to coordinate the humanitarian effort, appeared to leave the door open for more Bosnian war victims to come to London: "This represents a new phase in our already determined attempts to ease the suffering of these unfortunate people."
The initiative to accelerate the evacuation of wounded from the former Yugoslavia was triggered by the plight of Irma Hadzimuratovic, a five-year-old child gravely wounded in Sarajevo by shrapnel that also killed her mother. Hospitals in Sarajevo lacked the facilities to treat Irma.
When television pictures of the child on a crude life-support system were shown in Britain, Prime Minister John Major ordered her immediate removal to London where she became a patient in a leading children's hospital.
While Irma's treatment began, Downing Street officials reported that the switchboard at the prime minister's London residence was "inundated" with phone calls urging the government to accept more wounded children from Bosnia. On the first day of Irma's treatment, the hospital received 25 mail sacks of get well cards, toys, and other gifts.
Mr. Major then began consultations with Carl Bildt, the Swedish prime minister, and Albert Reynolds, his Irish counterpart. On Aug. 11, during Major's visit to Stockholm, he and Mr. Bildt announced that Britain would take 20 wounded, Sweden 16, and Ireland five.
Saudi Arabia has pledged to pay for air ambulances to help transport them, and France has reiterated its offer to take some of the wounded.
Hopes that the 41 being evacuated from Sarajevo would be the first of many were raised by the two leaders' joint statement. "There are obviously many other acute cases who need immediate assistance," they said. "Sweden and the United Kingdom may also take on additional critical cases."
Major announced that the British part of the exercise would be called "Operation Irma."
Although Major and Mrs. Bottomley took credit for Britain's initiative, the government's hand seems to have been forced by pressure from the public and the opposition Labour Party. John Smith, the Labour leader, said he welcomed the fact that Britain "at last" was offering help.
Lord Clinton Davies, chairman of the British Refugee Council and a former European Community commissioner, said, "The question has to be asked why it took TV pictures of a wounded child to produce action."
"This is a good start and an important breakthrough," he added, "but it is not enough. Ways have to be found to help these poor people, who are the innocent victims of a cruel and ugly war."
BOTTOMLEY said an emergency planning unit would list hospitals prepared to accept patients from Bosnia.
To jolt British relief policy towards Bosnia into more humane channels has required Major and his officials to ride roughshod over bureaucratic obstacles.
Lord Davies said that until this week the British Home Office had been reluctant to agree to bringing wounded children from Sarajevo because they would have to travel with their parents.
Britain's tight immigration and asylum laws make it difficult for adult refugees to enter the country. But on this occasion, Major insisted that all red tape be cut, and that the parents of wounded children be admitted to Britain immediately on six-month visas.
In addition, he ordered that the Home Office provide and pay for accommodation for families staying while their children received treatment. All medical bills will be paid by the government.
Lord Davies said his experience in Brussels as a senior EC official had demonstrated the need for better coordination of humanitarian relief policies by European countries.
"We all need to work together on this problem, he said. "It is not going to go away."