Croats set to escalate Balkan war

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The Bosnian government yesterday accused the international community of abandoning yet another United Nations "safe area" as fears grew for the beleaguered northern enclave of Bihac.

Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnian Prime Minister, appealed to Croatia to intervene against a three-pronged, Serb and rebel Muslim offensive, accusing the UN of leaving the pocket to its fate.

The US Senate last night threw international policy into further confusion by voting by 69 votes to 29 for a unilateral American withdrawal from the UN arms embargo against the Bosnian government. President Bill Clinton will veto the move, but there may be enough support in both houses of Congress to overturn his veto.

As the first 1,500 Muslims "cleansed" from the eastern town of Zepa reached friendly territory yesterday, the battle for Bihac appeared to be entering a critical phase. Up to 8,000 Muslims were said to have fled from their homes as Bosnian Serb, Croatian Serb and rebel Muslim armies advanced from the north, east and west.

US officials reported that units of the Croatian army, including tanks, were massing to intervene in the battle on the Muslim side. According to one report, some Croatian units, backed by the Bosnian Croat militia, were already engaged in the fighting. There are fears that a large-scale intervention by Zagreb could bring Serbia proper into the battle and ignite a wider Balkan war.

Mr Silajdzic appealed to Zagreb to honour last week's pledge to save the Bihac enclave, whose survival Croatia has declared to be a vital national interest. "We want and we need direct attacks," he said. "This is the moment of truth, and this is the time to do it."

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, yesterday accepted a Nato plan to simplify the dual UN-Nato chain of command and permit large western air-strikes against the Bosnia Serbs if they move against Gorazde, the one remaining safe area in eastern Bosnia. But it remains unclear whether Western governments will take similar action to protect Bihac.

t An overwhelming majority of Britons remains opposed to British troops being drawn into fighting in the Bosnian conflict, according to an opinion poll for the Independent. Of a sample of 1,016 people interviewed last week by the Harris Research Centre, only 23 per cent believed British troops should fight to protect Muslims in the UN safe areas. However, most Britons also oppose the withdrawal of UK troops. More than half of those questioned wanted the British force to remain to protect refugees, without fighting. Only 17 per cent favoured the full retreat of the UN force.

Battle for Bihac, page 10