Bosnia calls halt to big push

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The Independent Online
THE guns may finally fall silent this weekend along the front lines of north-western Bosnia, after intense international alarm that fighting in the area, perilously close to the Serb rebel stronghold of Banja Luka, was jeopardising the peace process and forcing thousands more civilians to flee.

Firece fighting around Prijedor, still in Serb hands, slowed yesterday as Bosnian officials announced an end to the offensive in which the government seized back two towns shortly after the truce was due to begin. "We have definitively stopped now," a senior Bosnian army official said, though he boasted that "a few more days" would have seen the fall of Prijedor.

The rebel Serb leadership demanded UN monitors along the line, offering peace-keepers a rare chance to move freely in the area. UN officials said they should be in place within 24 hours. Foreign workers have reported Yugoslav army troops in Banja Luka and Prijedor, a sign of serious Serb concern, since Belgrade cannot afford to be caught fighting in Bosnia.

"This is no more than specialists, special forces, that sort of thing," a senior UN officer said. "I think at last we'll get a cease-fire," he added. He said opposing armies were beginning to disengage along a tangled and confusing front line. "There are people cut off and surrounded, but as far as the offensive goes, I think they've stopped."

But there is intense suspicion on both sides. "There's going to be a lot of pushing and shoving in the next three to four days," the officer said.

Thousands of Serb civilians have been forced to flee the fighting in the past week, as the Bosnian army has rolled on relentlessly, capturing Sanski Most and Mrkonjic Grad. The next target was Prijedor, which UN sources say has become a fortress virtually emptied of civilians, but it seems the Bosnians came under a great deal of pressure from Washington to abide by the US-brokered ceasefire.

General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, visited Sarajevo yesterday for talks with government and UN officials on future deployment of Nato forces - should a peace treaty eventually be agreed.

The fighting that has threatened such a deal encompasses more than just military goals: many of the soldiers locked in combat were expelled from the area three years ago, and are looking for revenge.

Banja Luka is steeped in misery and drenched in blood; until this summer, most of it was Muslim - and brutal expulsions and murders of non-Serbs have continued until now - but in recent weeks, most of the victims have been Serbs forced to flee the fighting. Around 25,000 Serb civilians are now housed at a mining camp in Omarska, site of a former Serb concentration camp notorious for brutality to Muslim prisoners in the summer of 1992.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has distributed food, water, blankets and shelter materials, and doctors are treating many war wounded there. Thousands more refugees are converging on Banja Luka in cars, tractors and horse-drawn carts. "Most of the refugees are desperate," said John Sparrow of the ICRC. "The site itself is a health hazard."

More than 130,000 Serbs are living in bombed-out houses or camped in the open as winter approaches. "Obviously, if the fighting continues, the situation will become more and more precarious, and we are watching something unfold which you can only describe as a total disaster," Mr Sparrow said.

Farewell to arms? page 16

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