56 die in worst Serbian bombardment of Srebrenica: Air-burst mortar bombs scythe into town centre packed with refugees as Nato aircraft begin policing Bosnia no-fly zone

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The Independent Online
BOSNIAN Serbs yesterday carried out their heaviest artillery assault on the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, 15 minutes after Nato aircraft began enforcing the no-fly zone over the republic.

At least 56 people were killed, including 15 children, in a 40-minute artillery bombardment of the town centre, the United Nations confirmed yesterday.

It was the worst attack witnessed by Western observers in Bosnia since the war began just over a year ago. The small team of Canadian UN military observers stationed in Srebrenica helped to carry the wounded and the dying to the town's makeshift hospital in UN vehicles.

The UN observers said Serbs fired 'air bursts', mortar bombs that exploded in the air and sent shrapnel flying over the town centre, packed with refugees from other 'ethnically cleansed' parts of eastern Bosnia, many living in the open or in small shacks.

Sarajevo also came under heavy bombardment by Serbs yesterday. At least two people were killed and 35 wounded.

The Srebrenica attack came immediately after the Bosnian Serb military chief, General Ratko Mladic, left talks in Sarajevo with the UN force commander in the former Yugoslavia, General Lars- Eric Wahlgren, having reaffirmed the Bosnian Serb commitment to peace. At the meeting, General Mladic rejected proposed deployment of UN peace-keepers in Srebrenica, saying: 'It was too late.'

About 60,000 Muslims are trapped in the town, many in appalling conditions, without regular water or food supplies. The town owes its survival mostly to nightly food air drops by US aircraft.

Nato launched its air operation - codenamed Operation Deny Flight - yesterday afternoon when four US F-15 fighters took off from Aviano in northern Italy. It was Nato's first mission in a combat zone since its formation in 1949. The measure, with the threat of more sanctions against Serbia, is intended to force Bosnian Serbs to sign a peace plan already accepted by Muslims and Croats.

A French Mirage 2000 fighter taking part in the operation crashed in the Adriatic yesterday, apparently because of mechanical problems, Pentagon sources said. The pilot was picked up unharmed.

The bloodshed in Srebrenica highlights the largely symbolic value of Nato enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia, since tanks and artillery clearly have a more important role than aircraft.

UN sources in Sarajevo said Nato fighters were unlikely to shoot down Bosnian Serb aircraft, the most frequent violators of the no-fly rule. Force is to be used only in exceptional circumstances.

A UN spokesman said the 50 Nato aircraft patrolling Bosnia's airspace - French Mirages, Dutch F-16s and US F- 15s, will open fire only if unauthorised aircraft attack Nato or UN forces first. None has yet done so. The commander of UN forces in Bosnia, General Philippe Morillon, said enforcing the flight ban would have little effect on the fighting.

The jets' task is to monitor violations, and escort unauthorised aircraft out of Bosnia's airspace.

But even that may prove tricky. Most recent Bosnian Serb violations involved helicopters transporting troops into Srebrenica, a very short flight.

The rules of engagement as disclosed yesterday in Sarajevo will come as a bitter disappointment to the Bosnian government, which hoped for tougher guidelines. Bosnian Serb generals and politicians can still fly around Bosnia with impunity, even after the no-fly zone is enforced, as long as they notify the UN.

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