Bihac: the battered enclave that has become a prized trophy fought over by six armies

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SIX ARMIES HAVE an interest in the green hills, the railway junction, the roads and the 180,000 people of Bihac - seven, if you count the Nato forces and believe in the desire of the West to prevent the fall of another Bosnian enclave to the rebel Serb forces.

Bihac fulfils all those Balkan prejudices, its history a tale of betrayal and unfortunate geography, of local warlords, political intrigue and greed.

First, the cast list. On the government side are ranged the forces of the Fifth Corps, led by by the former Yugoslav army officer, Atif Dudakovic; the Bosnian Croat militia known as the HVO; and now, it appears, the regular Croatian army.

The Fifth Corps holds about two-thirds of the pocket, including the tiny UN-declared "safe area" - 40kms squared around the town of Bihac - but is under attack on four fronts.

The enemy within is Fikret Abdic, a renegade Muslim businessman who dreams of running Bihac as one big company town but who has very few troops - perhaps 3,000 men.

But Mr Abdic, who turned down the opportunity to lead Bosnia before the war in favour of his commercial interests, has overcome this difficulty by selling out to the secessionist Bosnian Serbs and their allies in Croatia.

The latest offensive was launched against Bihac last week by around 20,000 Serb troops from Bosnia and the Serb-held Krajina in Croatia.

Mr Abdic wants a stable economic environment and total political control in Bihac so that his Agrokomerc conglomerate can prosper; the Bosnian Serbs would like to crush a Bosnian trouble-spot and free up thousands of troops; the Krajina Serbs need the railway line and roads through Bihac to consolidate precarious communications links to their allies in Bosnia and Serbia.

Sarajevo needs Bihac in order to confound all of the above, and to maintain some presence in northern Bosnia, which has been comprehensively and brutally cleansed of almost one million Muslims. Zagreb, which has been an unwilling and often untrustworthy ally, seems at last to have decided that the xenophobic distaste it feels at working with the Muslims is outweighed by the disaster of a Krajina Serb victory in Bihac.

Nonetheless, the Croatian army, which has about 20,000 troops ranged along the front line with Krajina, west of Bihac, has yet to launch a frontal assault towards the Bosnian pocket.

It has chosen instead to attack from the south along the border, driving a wedge between the Krajina Serbs and their Bosnian allies with the aid of 10,000 troops and several dozen tanks.

Success on Friday - the capture of two Bosnian Serb towns and a major Krajina Serb supply route - has sown panic among the Serbs and will almost certainly relieve pressure on Bihac.

Life in the enclave is dire for the 150,000 civilians. Since May 1994, Mr Abdic and his Serb masters have blocked almost 90 per cent of the aid bound for Bihac.

Around 10,000 people have fled the recent fighting, forced to abandon the harvest, fruit of a United Nations seeds programme. Wheat fields have now been overrun by the Serbs, the UN says, and the UN commander in Bihac is now trying to feed the most vulnerable refugees with his military food stocks.

However, Colonel Jesper Helsoe says the Fifth Corps, tenacious almost to the point of suicide, has held the line for much of the past week. The Bosnian troops have nowhere else to go; many were expelled from their homes by the Serbs and seem determined to fight to the death, despite a lack of ammunition and armour.

Re-supply flights, assumed to emanate from Zagreb, have begun again, the UN says. They were suspended for several weeks after the shooting down of a helicopter and the death of the Bosnian Foreign Minister, Croat sources say.

This is good news for Britain and France, who are trying to fend off American demands for Nato air strikes to halt Serb advances around Bihac. Diplomatic rumour has it that Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, was hoping Croatia would do the job instead.

Nato planners have sought to extend the air-strike policy that is supposed to protect the last eastern Bosnian enclave, Gorazde, to Bihac, but have met resistance in London and Paris.

"Some of our allies think that Bihac, because of its enormously complicated internal politics, should not be subject to the same rules of protection as Gorazde," Richard Holbrooke, a senior US official, said on Friday.

The UN mandate to deter attacks on "safe areas" has allowed some officials to argue that Nato air power should only be used in Bihac if the Serbs shell the town. But the UN commander on the ground there has implied that he might seek Nato help if he felt the humanitarian situation merited it.

The Serb forces could destroy the viability of the pocket without attacking the "safe area" but the prospect of another 80,000 people seeking refuge in overcrowded Bihac might trigger a call for air strikes from the UN.

However, the UN Force Commander, General Bernard Janvier, who holds the UN key for air strikes, has proved reluctant to authorise bombing raids.

During the Serb assault on Srebrenica he repeatedly denied UN requests for air strikes, even when the majority of his staff recommended them, UN sources say. He eventually succumbed to the pressure too late to save Srebrenica, to the fury and despair of many soldiers and civilians under his command.

Fifth Corps' best hope of relief, therefore, probably comes from Zagreb, which must weigh the dangers of a push north along the border, with exposed and extended supply lines, against those of a frontal assault against the Krajina Serbs, which might anger Croatia's Western allies.

An attack in defence of Bihac offers Croatia a good excuse to take on its secessionist Serbs in a roundabout way and lessens the risk that Belgrade will feel the need to intervene on behalf of its clients in Bosnia and Croatia.

Diplomats in Yugoslavia say President Slobodan Milosevic seems unlikely to jeopardise his attempts to get sanctions lifted, particularly given the earlier recalcitrance of his proteges in Knin and Pale. Milan Martic, the Krajina Serb leader, has now said he is willing to negotiate with Croatia.

Belgrade, which stood by in May as Croatian troops swept through western Slavonia, a Serb pocket, is thought to be concerned mainly about the fate of oil-rich eastern Slavonia, a Serb-held area on the Croatian border with Serbia. The Yugoslav government has so far issued no response to the Serb defeats at Croatian hands in Bosnia, an ominous sign for the rebel leaderships in Bosnia and Croatia.

There were unconfirmed reports yesterday that the Croatian army had swung east, towards the Serb-held town of Jajce and the Bosnian lines beyond. While the politicians in Pale can afford to lose some territory in western Bosnia in an eventual settlement, their unhappy citizens will not be reassured by television pictures of frightened Serb refugees fleeing the Croatian advance.

The Bosnian army is on the attack around the northern town of Doboj, and Pale's forces are thinly stretched. Without significant military support from Serbia, the Bosnian Serbs might find Bihac a battle too far, the turning point of their war. It could prove fatal to the self-declared Serb "republic" in Croatia.

The much vaunted unity of the Serb people, and the fragile Zagreb-Sarajevo alliance, will be seriously tested in the struggle for Bihac; its citizens must hope the latter will survive the fires of war.