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Defenceless Muslims face the final agony: Tony Barber witnesses the relentless demolition of Bihac by Serbian guns

THE SERBIAN GUNNERS fired the shell last Tuesday from the hills, three miles outside Bihac. It exploded in the town centre, next to a building converted into a shelter for Muslim women and children. It killed five people, including three children, and wounded 24. Eight needed amputations.

'That was one of my most difficult days. All the casualties were big operations,' said Mensur Shabulic, director of the town's hospital.

The 75,000 Muslim inhabitants of Bihac, armed with little except old rifles, had no means of retaliating. Instead, as on every day since 12 June, when the Serbs first began to bombard Bihac, people simply did their best to carry away the wounded and clear up the wreckage. 'It took hours and hours to wash away the blood,' said Dzanana Fajtovic, a secretary.

There is little military logic to the Serbian shelling of Bihac. Major Helge Ringdal, a Norwegian who leads a team of five United Nations observers in the town, says he has repeatedly told the Serbs that the Muslims have no armed positions in the centre of Bihac. It makes little difference. Every day the Serbs send over more shells, some in the morning, some in the afternoon, and some at night. On Thursday the shelling lasted from 6.40pm until after midnight.

The virtually defenceless town is being systematically reduced to rubble. Everywhere shops, homes and offices have been smashed. Clothes stores, cafes, pharmacies and furniture warehouses lie in ruins. The roads have gaping holes. Sandbags, blocks of concrete and planks of wood protect the buildings that are still intact. The few windows that have not been blasted out are taped or boarded up. Major Ringdal said 52 civilians have died and 250 been wounded since 12 June.

Bihac is the last large Muslim town in northern Bosnia not to have fallen to Serbian forces. But the Serbs have blockaded it since last October, and slowly but surely the noose is tightening. The Muslims have no electricity except for the odd generator, such as one that keeps the hospital running. They have no regular hot water. They have no communications with the outside world except the radio. They sit next to candles at night, listening to the boom and crash of the shells. 'The Serbs are digging our graves here. For us there is no future. But whose victory will it be? In such a war, no one wins in the end,' said a Muslim woman working at the hospital.

Ismet Dupanovic, a retired railway engineer, said: 'If only I could be given a weapon, I would fight. This is our home, this is Bosnia-Herzegovina. Most people don't want to go anywhere else. In any case, they have nowhere to go. Of course, we can win. But you can't do anything against a tank with a rifle.'

Food supplies are sparse but, for the moment, adequate. It may be a different story in the winter, for the war has so disrupted the lives of peasants in the Bihac area that they are having trouble collecting the harvest.

The people of Bihac are adamant that they will not surrender their homes lightly. But if Bihac should fall to the Serbs, the world may be faced with a refugee crisis bigger than anything yet seen in Bosnia. It is not just that many thousands will be compelled to abandon their town and flee north to the Croatian border. The refugee wave may also include many of the 230,000 Muslims who live in small towns and villages between the border and the river Una in northern Bosnia.

All are trapped in a Serbian encirclement that could turn into yet another bout of the 'ethnic cleansing' in which Serbs evict Muslims from their homes and force them to renounce their property and pledge never to return.

This time it would represent the final collapse of the Muslim position in northern Bosnia.

Serbs near their goal, page 7; leading article, page 12;

letters, page 13; Robert Fisk, page 23

(Photograph omitted)