Asked who the man in the red suit and white beard is, 3-year-old Amina Memisevic replies without hesitation.

"That's Djeda Mraz (Father Frost)," she says, eyeing presents with anticipation. "His job is to give packets away. He's a good man. He doesn't kill children." Father Frost is the local name for Santa Claus.Amina's mother Safija Memisivic, stunned by her daughter's response, looks away momentarily in embarrassed silence.

"Amina couldn't sleep all night looking forward to this morning," she explains. "It's a great joy to our children to get these gifts, to escape the war for a little while."

In a city marking its second Christmas under siege, death and destruction are constant companions. Age does not matter. More than 1,500 children have been killed and another 12,000 wounded in the capital by Serb sniping and shelling since war broke out almost 21 months ago.

Amina was among about 50 children who celebrated Christmas by going to the Sarajevo brewery where their fathers work. An acting troupe amused the gathering and Father Frost gave each child presents donated by UNICEF.

"More parents would have brought their children, but there's been so much shelling lately they decided it would be safer to stay home," said one worker.

A Canadian peacekeeper dressed as Santa Claus visited children in the city's Kosevo hospital, distributing toys and candy donated by his air squadron.

"My name's Earl and I'm a sergeant and loadmaster on the C-131s flying relief into Sarajevo," he said. "This is my second time playing Santa. Two years ago I did it in Ethiopia."

Wearing a flak jacket and a pillow under his red suit, Earl's Santa was of such girth that children had a hard time sitting on his lap. His flowing white beard provoked as much alarm as mirth among some of the younger children, whom he tried to reassure through an interpreter.

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Christmas began in Sarejevo with a midnight Mass celebrated jointly by the archbishops of Paris and Sarajevo.

An overflow crowd spilled out on to the streets around the cathedral as neither sporadic gunfire nor cold rain kept the faithful at home.

Church bells rang out at the beginning and end of the service, temporarily drowning the sound of sporadic machine-gun and small arms fire in the city.

Earlier, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, said a Christmas Mass for French peacekeepers based in Sarajevo. Several hundred French soldiers, including Legionnaires, sang carols with such gusto the cardinal said they reminded him of marching songs.

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