Muslims flee Serbian slaughter: Bosnia signs withdrawal deal at UN as Russia offers to join air drop

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS of Muslims fled a Serbian advance into the enclave of Cerska in eastern Bosnia yesterday.

'The Serbs are burning one village after another,' Bosnian radio reported. It also said Serbs used tanks, armoured cars and poison gas to drive Muslims from the mountainous enclave, close to the border town of Zvornik. In Sarajevo, Bosnia's Vice-President, Ejup Ganic, confirmed the Serbians had seized most of Cerska. 'We have lost about 500 of our citizens who we think have been slaughtered,' he said. 'But we are still fighting back in the region.'

The fall of Cerska, after the United States air drops of humanitarian aid in the area, has cast a deep shadow over UN peace talks between leaders of Bosnia's three ethnic groups.

This prompted the US to call an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council last night. It passed a resolution demanding all parties to the Bosnian conflict 'remain fully engaged' in the New York peace talks.

However, the Muslims were upset with the resolution because it did not directly charge the Serbians with the latest attacks, leaving in doubt whether President Alijah Izetbegovic would remain at the negotiating table.

At the UN last night the Bosnian Muslims signed an agreement with the Serbs and Croats mapping out how the factions would withdraw forces after a final settlement - a small but significant step towards restoring momentum to the talks.

A convoy of 11 UN lorries attempting to rescue 1,500 seriously wounded from Cerska, at the Muslim-held village of Konjevic Polje 10 miles away, halted near the Bosnian border last night, waiting for Bosnian Serb permission to reach the enclave.

A representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said 10,000 people, including 3,000 children, were sitting in the open under constant shelling in the ruins of Konjevic Polje. For a second day the Bosnian Serb military chief, General Ratko Mladic, refused the UN permission to get to Konjevic Polje, saying the inhabitants must surrender unconditionally and agree to quit the region before the rescue lorries could enter. The UN has rejected the terms.

A US air drop of food bundles over Konjevic Polje on Tuesday night fell on target. Local leaders said 18 bundles were picked up buried in snow 20in deep, although a Bosnian Serb bombardment stopped the inhabitants from collecting the rest.

Meanwhile, a bomb exploded last night outside the American embassy in the centre of Belgrade. No one was reported hurt in the blast which smashed the front windows of the building. Some Western diplomats linked the blast to a bitter campaign in the Serbian media against American-led attempts to get more humanitarian aid to besieged Muslims in Bosnia.

Three US Hercules C-130 jets flew from Rhein-Main, Frankfurt, last night on their fourth air-drop. After parachuting their cargo over east Bosnia, they turned towards Split in Croatia to head back to the German airbase. President Bill Clinton said yesterday that the air drops would continue, after a statement on Tuesday by Les Aspin, the Defense Secretary, that they might be suspended.

The mixed signals from Washington are an echo of the heated debate inside the administration on the usefulness, practically and politically, of air-drop missions.

A Russian offer to join the air relief operation has been warmly welcomed in Washington. Two Ilyushin-76 transport planes will leave next week for Rhein-Main, a Russian official said. American military experts are to go to Moscow soon to discuss the offer, a US Air Force spokesman said.

Western pressure in New York on Radovan Karadzic, self-styled president of the Bosnian-Serb state, is unlikely to have much effect in slowing the Serbian offensive. A nationalist former poet, he has little influence on military chiefs nominally under his control.

The real strongman in the Bosnian Serb statelet is the military chief, General Mladic. Formerly commander of the Yugoslav army garrison in Knin, the Serb stronghold in Croatia, he has a reputation as an extreme hardliner. On occasions he has even had shouting matches with Mr Karadzic in front of UN chiefs.

Bosnian Serb military commanders on the river Drina towns of Zvornik and Bratunac say quite openly that they take orders exclusively from General Mladic. Leaders of UN aid convoys seeking to cross Serb-held territory to reach Muslim enclaves have found that getting permission from Mr Karadzic counts for nothing.

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