Croat attacks raise fear of new war

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The Croatian army, backed by tanks, artillery and elderly MiG jets, yesterday launched an attack on Serb-held territory on the border with Bosnia, increasing fears of all-out war in the region.

In an attempt to stop the fighting, the UN envoy, Yasushi Akashi, flew from Sarajevo - where he failed to win an extension to the Bosnian truce that expired at midday yesterday -to join talks convened between Zagreb and its secessionist Serbs.

No progress was reported: as Hrvoje Sarinic, the Croatian minister responsible for UN relations, met Borislav Mikelic, prime minister of the self-declared "Serbian Republic of Krajina", Croatian jet fighters took off for a failed attempt to bomb a Serb-held bridge across the Sava river to Bosnia.

"The news from Croatia is of very deep concern to me," Mr Akashi said before leaving Sarajevo. "It is more than an incident but less than full- scale war." The action has sidelined fears about Bosnia, which looks relatively stable seen from Zagreb.

Around 3,000 Croatian troops launched a three-pronged attack on Krajina's "Sector West", the smallest and most vulnerable Serb-held region, at dawn yesterday, in a relatively successful attempt to seize control of the Zagreb-Belgrade highway. The Serbs shelled the towns of Karlovac, Sisak, Kutina and Nova Gradiska in response, and appealed for help from Serbs in Bosnia and rump Yugoslavia. They also took 115 UN staff hostage in Okucani, and are holding around 60 Nepalese troops in two posts near the river border.

Artillery and infantry battles were raging along the eastern and western front lines of the sector last night, UN officials said, with the Croatian army making progress. Serb officials told of "dozens of dead and wounded" but reports of casualties are vague as the 2,000 peace-keepers in the area are confined to camp.

By dusk, the Croats had taken several Serb towns including Jasenovac, site of the Second World War concentration camp where Croatian fascists killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs and which was today to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its liberation.

Last night troops were only 4km from the Serb town of Okucani. Croatian media claimed they had control of most of the 27km of disputed motorway,which is normally patrolled by UN troops. Three Jordanians observing the road were seriously wounded yesterday by a shell.

Two Croatian MiG-21s took off from Zagreb yesterday to bomb the Sava bridge, presumably to stop any re-inforcements from Serb-held Bosnia, but apparently missed their target. In Sector South, home to the Serb "capital", Knin, columns ofCroatian and Serb troops, tanks and artillery converged on the Medak crossing. Zagreb described its attack as a limited police action.

UN mission at risk, page 9

News Analysis, page 13