Sarajevo fights for freedom

Bosnian government's biggest gamble in three years of war opens fronts all around besieged capital in what residents pray is the `big push' locked to grid strap Book locked top grid
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The Independent Online



The Bosnian government army, in its boldest military gamble in more than three years of war, took the fight to the Bosnian Serbs yesterday, breaking through their supply lines and opening up fronts all around the besieged capital of Sarajevo.

Small-arms, machine-gun, mortar and tank fire reverberated in the hills above Sarajevo throughout the day as forces inside the capital thrust towards Serb lines, and units outside the city fought their way in. "They're pinning the Serbs down at a number of locations around the city, trying to interdict or actually cut key supply routes," said a UN official.

The scale and level of co- ordination of the attacks led to speculation that was this was the big push that beleaguered residents of Sarajevo had long been praying for: the final offensive to smash the siege of the city and drive the Serbs off the mountains from which they have been pounding Sarajevo, on and off, for 38 months.

Despite the apparent early successes of the mainly Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina armija - apparently backed by Croatian artillery - it remained unclear whether the thrust marked the beginning of a final offensive or was just a tactical push to open roads to badly needed relief aid. The short-term objective, however, was clearly aimed at cutting Bosnian Serb supply routes around the capital. The government forces appear to have achieved tactical surprise by attacking the Serbs from within the city, as well as with the forces which have massed to the north in recent days.

Sarajevo streets were deserted long after daybreak as civilians fled to basement shelters. The fighting erupted at 4am and raged despite an appeal by leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy industrialised democracies - meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia - for both sides to show "the greatest restraint".

The Serbs retaliated in traditional fashion: by shelling the city. Two male patients were killed and six, including women and children, were wounded when a shell slammed into the city's main Kosevo hospital. Thirteen civilians were killed elsewhere in the city, and five Serb civilians were killed by shelling from government forces. A large Serb artillery round smashed close to the Bosnian government presidency building, but no casualties were reported.

The Bosnian army announced late last night that it had punched through Serb lines and seized a number of high points along a strategic ridge north-west of Sarajevo. Bosnian radio said the Semizovac-Srednje road, on the route linking Sarajevo to the northern town of Tuzla, was now within range of Bosnian army guns. The radio also spoke in general terms of gains in the areas of Hadzici, Visoko and Trnovo, around Sarajevo.

The Bosnian Serb government admitted early losses of territory but said the offensive was doomed. The Bosnian Serb parliamentary leader, Momcilo Krajisnik, said: "The great Muslim offensive against Serb-held Sarajevo is bound to fail, its initial small successes have been beaten back and Serbs have retaken all their former positions."

Bosnian troops hauled impounded mortars and field guns from a UN arms dump, threatening to shoot Ukrainian UN guards if they interfered. They also took back two tanks. The Bosnian Serbs responded with fire from French Sagaie light tanks captured from the UN in retaliation for Nato air raids last month.

Much of the combat was concentrated on the Debelo Brdo ridge, which caps a steep hill rising from the city to the south, and overlooks a road that connects the Bosnian Serb military base at Lukavica with the Bosnian Serb political headquarters in Pale. "We believe the Bosnian army has cut the Pale-Lukavica road," said a UN source. Pale fiercely denied that the route had been severed and insisted its troops were in control.

Rumours circulated in the city of Bosnian gains, of more cut routes north of the city between Vogosca and Olovo, and of street fighting in the Serb- held towns of Hadzici and Ilidza, but the UN, which is barred from most of the area, could not confirm the reports.

Cutting supply routes would deal separatist Serb forces a serious psychological blow, but lifting the siege of Sarajevo will require days, if not weeks, of heavy fighting. The real test will be whether the Muslims can hold what they have taken. Observers believe it is only a matter of time before Bosnian Serbs counter-attack for control of the roads.

The Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, said on Thursday that government forces had been ordered to strike to halt further Serb strangulation of the capital. Food stocks in the city are at one of the lowest points since war began in April 1992, when Bosnian Serbs, backed by Serbia proper, rebelled against the government's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia.

Although the course of the battle was shrouded in uncertainty last night, the Bosnian Serbs appeared to be badly rattled. For the first time in the war, the Muslim-led Bosnian government forces are co-operating properly with the Bosnian Croat forces, who are for all practical purposes an extension of the army of Croatia.

The attacks in the Sarajevo area this week are part of a wider, carefully co-ordinated military operation that involves, as its second element, Croatian attacks on Serb positions in western Bosnia.

Last Tuesday the Bosnian Croat command announced the capture of Mount Sator, a mountain in the Livno region near the western Bosnian-Croatian border. This victory offers the Croats the opportunity not only to cut off rebel Krajina Serbs in Croatia from the Bosnian Serbs, but to push into the Bosnian Serb heartland from the west while Muslim-led forces make a push from the east.