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By Blaine Harden
The Washington Post

SARAJEVO, Bosnia

An Italian cargo plane carrying a four-man crew and five tons of blankets for besieged Sarajevo civilians crashed Thursday in thick forest about 20 miles west of here as it approached the city on a flight from neighboring Croatia.

U.N. officials said there was no indication that the twin-engine turboprop was downed by hostile fire from one of Bosnia's warring factions, but four U.S. Marine rescue helicopters flying from an amphibious assault ship in the Adriatic Sea were driven away from the area by what their crews believe was small-arms fire, according to Pentagon spokesmen and naval officers reached by phone in the Adriatic.

Senior operations officers with the U.S. naval task force there said they did not know what caused the plane crash, but one declared that the sudden loss of radar contact with the aircraft over territory filled with "lethal stuff" suggested that "there's at least a finite probability they met with foul play."

A convoy of U.N. armored vehicles from Sarajevo reached the wreckage of the downed plane about 9:30 tonight, but there was no immediate indication of survivors or of a cause of the crash. "It is dark, and our people are on the spot doing the initial investigation, but we haven't been able to find anything yet," said Izumi Nakamitsu, acting head of the U.N. refugee agency here.

The Marine helicopters -- transport craft and two Cobra gunship escorts -- ted off the USS Iwo Jima about 3:45 p.m. in an attempt to reach the downed plane, but after a fruitless 90-minute search, the two transports reported they "had encountered small-arms fire." At that point, the helicopters were ordered to return immediately to the Iwo Jima. The Marines did not open fire, and no aircraft damage was reported, Navy spokesmen said, but the incident was the U.S. military's closest brush with hostile fire in the region since Bosnia's fierce three-sided civil war broke out five months ago.

Capt. Mack Thomas, commodore of the five-ship U.S. task force, said in a telephone interview from the Iwo Jima that his pilots "had good reason to believe they in fact were being fired at." He said he aborted the rescue attempt because of the ground fire and because arriving U.N. forces at the crash site had told him "it just wasn't the type of accident that people were going to survive."

In his last contact with regional air traffic controllers, the pilot of the Italian cargo plane made no mention of mechanical or other problems, saying only that he was 18 miles west of Sarajevo, U.N. officials here said. The plane went down on a heavily wooded hillside in territory thought to be controlled by militia forces organized by Bosnia's Croat minority.

Sarajevo airport itself is surrounded by Serb militia units armed with various types of artillery, including radar-guided antiaircraft guns. Bosnia's Slavic Muslim-led government forces have a much smaller artillery arsenal and some heat-seeking ground-to-air missiles, but no sophisticated antiaircraft targeting systems.

Over the past month, a number of pilots flying the two-month-old humantarian airlift to Sarajevo have detected hostile radar "locking on" to their planes, a signal that antiaircraft fire could follow. A British pilot took vigorous evasive action two weeks when his instruments indicated radar targeting as he took off from Sarajevo. Last month, a French cargo plane was hit by a single bullet as it approached the city.

Just hours before Thursday's plane crash, U.N. Undersecretary Marrack Goulding warned that if attacks on international relief forces here continue, countries contributing troops to the mission may demand their withdrawal. Two U.N. soldiers have been killed and 44 wounded in Sarajevo since May, and the frequency of such attacks has increased sharply in the past month. There are now more than 1,500 U.N. troops and civilians here, with the largest contingents from France, Egypt and Ukraine.

Goulding, chief of U.N. peace-keeping operations around the world, said he had sought "explicit assurances" from the warring factions "that they will stop shooting at U.N. personnel; the force is taking more casualties than any force has taken in a long time."

The U.N. headquarters building, which has come under periodic sniper and mortar fire for weeks, is exposed to both Serb and Bosnian government artillery, and it took a direct hit last night. No one was hurt, but the shell caused the most extensive damage to the building so far.

Goulding did not accuse a specific Bosnian faction of firing at the U.N. mission, and U.N. officials have said in the past that both Serb and Muslim militiamen have taken pot shots at the building. Over the last few days, however, U.N. sources have said that it appears the heavy shelling is coming from Serb gun positions in the hills surrounding Sarajevo, batteries that have already damaged six out of every ten dwellings in the city.

The military commander of the U.N. operation here, Egyptian Brig. Gen. Hussein Abdul Razek, hinted broadly last week that the reason he and other U.N. officials do not publicly point the finger at the Serb side for shelling civilians is fear of retaliatory attack on his troops.