Serb noose closes on Srebrenica: Besieged town under fierce artillery and infantry attack - Panic as Muslims negotiate surrender terms

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THE YEAR-LONG struggle of the Bosnian town of Srebrenica appeared to be nearing an end last night, as besieging Bosnian Serb forces launched a fierce infantry assault on the enclave supported by artillery, including multiple-rocket launchers.

'The town is only hours away from collapse,' an amateur radio operator in Srebrenica reported to Sarajevo last night. He said strong advances during the day had brought Bosnian Serb forces within a mile of the town's centre. They appeared to have been joined by troops from the Serbian army from across the nearby Drina river.

Bosnia's Muslim-controlled radio said Srebrenica's defenders were resisting strongly and that casualties were high on both sides. But in New York United Nations sources said last night that the Muslims were negotiating a surrender and local UN officials were negotiating a corridor out of the town for refugees.

The Serbs were reported to have seized control of the vital water purification plant at the village of Zeleni Jadar, four miles south of Srebrenica. The radio said panic had gripped the town's 28,000 inhabitants, many of whom are refugees.

Only one month ago General Philippe Morillon, the UN Commander in Bosnia, visited Srebrenica and promised the terrified inhabitants that the UN would protect the town from Serb attacks. That promise was forgotten last night. On Monday 56 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed by an intense Serbian artillery bombardment of the town centre.

Abandoned by the UN and by the outside world, the town's civilian authorities last night faced the choice of annihilation or accepting whatever surrender terms the Serbs cared to offer. They may allow the women and children to flee to the Bosnian-held city of Tuzla. But the men are unlikely to be offered any such choice.

The controversy over calls to arm Bosnia's Muslims deepened yesterday as Reginald Bartholomew, the US envoy who has repeatedly suggested an eventual lifting of the arms embargo, arrived in London for talks.

John Major told the Commons he opposed lifting the ban, while Mr Bartholomew cancelled all meetings with British journalists to avoid having to side openly with Baroness Thatcher's call this week to arm the Muslims.

Responding to a question in the House, the Prime Minister said: 'I share the view . . . expressed about the need to damp down and not increase the supply of arms.' Downing Street sources said later that Mr Major was not closing the option of air strikes on Serbian ground targets in Bosnia.

In Washington, the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, tried to minimise the embarrassment by describing Lady Thatcher's comments as 'an emotional response to an emotional problem'. On the question of direct military intervention - also advocated by Lady Thatcher - he said: 'We think that the use of ground troops, the use of American force, is not the solution to that problem at the present time.'

Lord Owen, the EC mediator, warned after meeting Mr Bartholomew that Russia would probably arm the Serbs if the embargo on the Muslims was lifted. 'The danger is that you will unleash . . . sophisticated armaments if the Russians supply the Serbs.'

Mr Bartholomew, who has just completed a tour of the former Yugoslav republics, met Lord Owen, Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, and Douglas Hogg, the Foreign Office Minister. Mr Bartholomew reiterated to Mr Hogg his position, set out in Zagreb two days ago, that if the Bosnian Serbs continued to refuse to sign the Owen-Vance peace plan, the US would work to lift the arms embargo.

A diplomatic source detected three objectives behind the US stance: to maintain pressure on the Serbs; to satisfy domestic public opinion; and to 'fly a kite to get the other allies - primarily Britain and France - used to the idea'.

He added that Britain would emphasise to Mr Bartholomew that 'it genuinely believed lifting the embargo would cause more killing' and that the Russians had in any case made it 'perfectly clear' that they would block any move by the UN Security Council to lift it.

The Russian UN ambassador, Yuli Vorosontov, said his country would vote for further sanctions against Serbia after the Russian referendum on 25 April and drop a request for a 15-day delay.

Frustrated by the UN Security Council's failure to act against Serbian aggression in Bosnia, the five non-aligned members of the council last night forced a two-day debate on Bosnia. The debate, which is a sop to the five's complaints about the delay in voting new sanctions against the Serbs, will start on Monday.

(Photograph omitted)