Muslims forbidden to flee with UN convoy: Srebrenica leaders defy Bosnian President's order, saying evacuation aids ethnic cleansing

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The Independent Online
BELGRADE (Agencies) - Muslim leaders in the besieged Bosnian town of Srebrenica refused to allow a UN convoy to move out civilians yesterday, despite an order by the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, to let them go.

Eight lorries delivered 75 tonnes of food to the mountain settlement in eastern Bosnia and left empty for the return to Tuzla. They had been expected to bring out hundreds of Muslim women, children and wounded.

More than 5,000 people have been moved out of Srebrenica in UN convoys over the past two weeks, at a cost of 13 lives. However, local leaders believe the exodus is abetting the Serbian policy of 'ethnic cleansing' and has made the town increasingly vulnerable to attack by Serbs who have besieged it since the Bosnian civil war began a year ago.

Tanjug, the Yugoslav news agency, said the decision to stop the evacuation had been taken by the local commander of Muslim forces, Nasir Oric, and that angry demonstrators had protested in the centre of town.

Serbian forward positions are now within a few hundred yards of the town at some points and UN peace-keepers reported heavy fighting around it on Saturday, despite a ceasefire.

The 13 deaths in previous convoys last week were women and children killed in stampedes by desperate civilians to climb aboard the lorries or during the 60-mile journey to the comparative safety of Tuzla.

In Sarajevo, the Bosnian Foreign Minister, Haris Silajdzic, said yesterday that a decision on Saturday by the Bosnian Serb parliament to reject a peace plan drawn up by the mediators Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen was just 'buying time for ethnic cleansing'.

'Thousands of people are awaiting death and starvation in 20th-century Europe,' he said. 'There is a medieval siege of European cities.'

At the Vancouver summit yesterday both the United States and Russia condemned the Bosnian Serbs' refusal to endorse the Vance-Owen plan, which would divide Bosnia into 10 largely autonomous provinces.

The White House spokesman, George Stephanopoulos, said that the Bosnian Serbs' continued foot-dragging on efforts to end the war was 'very regrettable' and that President Bill Clinton would seek to tighten sanctions on Serbia.

'President Clinton deeply believes that the Serbians cannot go unpunished for their aggression. He deeply believes that we need an agreement along the lines of the Vance-Owen accord.

'The President's going to go back to the UN and look for tougher sanctions against the Serbs,' Mr Stephanopoulos said.

Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, said the Bosnian Serbs parliament's rejection of the peace plan, which has been accepted by Bosnian Muslims and Croats, was a 'tragic mistake'. He added that Mr Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin discussed the latest development in the Balkans crisis during their summit meeting.

Mr Kozyrev said the Russian government was considering 'the best possible approaches, especially pragmatic approaches, because it is a new situation - but it is a very, very alarming situation'.

He said Russia was prepared to contribute peace-keeping troops to Bosnia, if the Vance-Owen plan is implemented.

A year of siege, page 12