Serb citadel threatened as collapse continues

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The Independent Online
Bosnian and Croat forces were last night poised to encircle the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka, but their leaders pledged not to attack the city directly.

With Croats advancing from the north and south and Bosnian government forces from the south and west, the Serb-held territory in western Bosnia was shrinking dramatically. According to one UN estimate, the Serbs, who held 70 per cent of Bosnia 10 days ago, now control less than 40 per cent. Regular Croatian troops opened a third front on Monday night, crossing the Una river, and were thought by the UN to have captured the border town of Bosanska Dubica.

Bosnian government forces were reported to have captured almost all of the Ozren salient south-east of Banja Luka, and Croat forces were said to have entered the town of Prijedor, though the Serbs denied this. The collapse of the Bosnian Serbs, weakened by two weeks of Nato air strikes, threatens to bury hopes of a rapid resolution of the Bosnian crisis at the negotiating table. "I think we are making some small measurable progress on a step-by-step basis," said the US special envoy Richard Holbrooke.

In Washington, the State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said presidents Franjo Tudjman, of Croatia, and Alija Izetbegovic, of Bosnia, had indicated they would halt their offensive against Banja Luka.

But US officials in Belgrade expect Bosnian Croat and Muslim forces to continue their advance and the US is reportedly planning for a possible siege of Banja Luka - in which case, the UN may be asked to make it a "safe haven" whose security from Muslim attack would be guaranteed by the continued existence of the Gorazde "safe haven" inside Serb-held territory on the Drina river.

The latest round of fighting has triggered an immense new refugee tragedy. "Three hundred and forty thousand people fleeing their houses in two months is unique in the history of the conflict," said Josue Anselmo, of the ICRC. "When you see people fleeing the houses they were born in and lived in for centuries and they have nothing, and you run into these people in Banja Luka and it's raining all day long, and these people have just one blanket and one jersey, it's a tragedy."

Behind Serb lines, page 12