Croat forces 'just hours' from victory

Aid crisis as 120,000 Serbs flee
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More than 120,000 Serb refugees were fleeing Krajina last night, as Croatia ignored Western condemnation and swept toward victory in its decisive campaign launched on Friday to recapture the breakaway region. Despite continuing Serb resistance in the north, United Nations monitors said Croatian forces were likely to declare outright victory within 48 hours.

As triumphalism mounted in Zagreb, UN concern focused on the escalating humanitarian crisis caused by the biggest single exodus of refugees since the start of the Yugoslav wars in 1991. By last night at least 30,000 Croatian Serbs had poured out of Krajina heading for the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka. Tens of thousands were still fleeing ahead of the Croatian assault.

Meanwhile, 10,000 people who had spent Saturday night outside the UN base at Topusko in northern Krajina moved towards the northern border town of Dvor with fuel provided by the UN. More were expected soon. The UN was negotiating with Croatia last night to open a corridor for 80,000 Croatian Serbs trapped in corners of Krajina to move into Serb- held parts of Bosnia through Dvor and the town of Srb in the south.

"Our food rations are very low, so we cannot mount a big operation to help a huge number of refugees," James Kanu, a UN spokesman in Topusko, said. ''It is almost unbelievable to see all these young people, children, women, old men - it's a miserable sight. You don't have words to describe such a sight. You see people sharing a piece of bread - that's their meal, and perhaps they don't even have water to drink afterwards."

In other developments yesterday, President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia visited Knin, where he wept with joy at the "liberation" of the town. Croatia declared that Krajina no longer existed, and agreed a new UN mandate that will turn the peacekeeping force in the region into human rights observers and aid workers. Zagreb agreed to allow all Serbs who want to leave Krajina to do so, with the exception of those considered war criminals.

The leadership struggle between the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and his military commander, General Ratko Mladic, continued with 18 senior military officers taking the general's side and the Bosnian Serb parliament backing Mr Karadzic.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other agencies were working desperately to transport emergency supplies to the exhausted, frightened Krajina refugees via Belgrade to Serb-held northern Bosnia.

"We have 30,000 refugees already in Bosnia and, as of this morning, 120,000 streaming in," said Mans Nyberg, spokesman for the UNHCR in Sarajevo. Aid workers reported seeing columns of refugees treking across northern Bosnia. "We have a major humanitarian catastrophe on our hands,'' Mr Nyberg said.

The Catholic bishop of Banja Luka has reported revenge evictions of Croats from homes in the city. Many Croats from Banja Luka were fleeing across the river Sava into Croatia.

The UN expressed outrage at Croatian attacks on UN observation posts, which killed three peace-keepers, accusing Croat forces of using seven Danish peace-keepers as human shields. According to UN commanders in Zagreb the Danish troops were forced to walk ahead of a Croatian advance against Serb resistance.

The swift collapse of Serb forces in the south of Krajina has stirred suspicions among Western diplomats and international mediators that a deal was secured between Zagreb and the Serbian government in Belgrade before the assault. Some UN sources believe Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, gave Mr Tudjman assurances that the assault would not provoke a wider war. In return, Western observers hold that Mr Tudjman may have conceded that eastern Slavonia, still occupied by the Serbs, will not be re-taken by Croatia.

Meanwhile, the people of Bihac, whose Bosnian army defenders punched into Krajina to link up with the Croats and liberate the area, were joyful.