Serbs defy the world: UN Security Council holds emergency session - Hand-to-hand fighting in Srebrenica - Pressure grows for air strikes by West

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The Independent Online
BOSNIAN Serb forces launched a heavy assault on Srebrenica yesterday, shelling it from all sides as Western leaders debated whether to use force to stop their advance in eastern Bosnia.

Radio 'hams' in the besieged town said Serb and Muslim forces were fighting hand to hand. Dead and wounded people littered the streets but could not be moved because of heavy infantry and artillery attacks.

One amateur radio broadcaster said that Serbian forces, defying a United Nations order to pull back, had advanced so close that hand grenades had killed three people and wounded 15.

Another said: 'The Serbs are still trying to get into the city. The situation is critical. They are attacking from all directions.' The attack came after Serbs stopped a UN relief convoy 10 miles from the town.

The UN Security Council was meeting in emergency session last night to discuss a French demand for an immediate tightening of sanctions against Serbia. France asked the council to adopt a resolution cutting all road, trade and communications links with Belgrade. The vote was expected to be passed, after the Russians indicated they would not exercise their veto but would abstain.

As delegates prepared to meet in New York, the UN in Bosnia announced that Muslim and Serb forces had agreed in principle to a ceasefire and to allow the relief convoy into the town today. 'But nothing has been signed yet,' a spokesman said. Earlier, UN officials had confirmed that, despite world international outrage at the Serbian assault, Srebrenica was still under shellfire.

As Srebrenica hovered on the brink of surrender, UN peace- keepers were prevented from travelling there, on the orders of a Bosnian Serb commander. UN relief officials abandoned an attempt to send nine trucks to Srebrenica to deliver food and medicines and evacuate refugees. 'We have just got confirmation that there has been fairly heavy shelling, and the convoy will not attempt to go into Srebrenica today,' one UNHCR official said.

The UN wants to evacuate 30,000 civilians from Srebrenica, which has been under Serbian siege for almost a year and is one of the last surviving Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia.

The UN Security Council declared the town a UN-monitored safe area last Friday and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Serbian forces from its outskirts.

At Sarajevo airport yesterday, the Bosnian Serb military leader, General Ratko Mladic, who vowed last week that UN troops would enter the town 'over my dead body', held face-to-face talks with his arch-enemy, General Sefer Halilovic, the Bosnian government commander.

The capture of Srebrenica would bring the Serbs one step closer to their goal of attaining full control of northern and eastern Bosnia and holding a continuous stretch of Balkan territory from the Krajina enclave near Croatia's Adriatic coast to Serbia itself.

For Western governments, stirred by the scenes of maimed and desperate Muslim refugees pouring out of the town, Srebrenica has turned into the supreme example of Serbian defiance of international opnion.

The strongest call for Western action yesterday came from France, whose foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said the Security Council should close all road, river, rail and telecommunications links with Serbia and even consider military strikes against Serbian targets. 'The Serbs don't give a damn for the international community,' he said.

Lord Owen, the European Community mediator, has said the West should attack roads, bridges and other supply routes that the Serbian government in Belgrade uses to sustain the Bosnian Serb campaign. Mr Juppe said that France was concerned about the safety of its 5,000- strong UN contingent in what was Yugoslavia, but added: 'We naturally do not rule out going further, if necessary, to put an end to this unacceptable, barbarian and inhuman behaviour of the Bosnian Serbs, supported by the Serbs of Belgrade.'

John Major discussed the Bosnian war yesterday with the French President, Francois Mitterrand, and is to speak with President Bill Clinton today. A government official said that Britain, like France, wanted an urgent Security Council resolution toughening sanctions against Serbia. 'All possible steps must be taken to protect the population of Srebrenica,' she said.

Western governments have previously been reluctant to press for tighter sanctions against Serbia before 25 April, the day of Russia's crucial referendum on who rules the country.

President Boris Yeltsin's peace envoy said yesterday that Russia would not veto a UN vote on 26 April to tighten sanctions. 'If there is not a positive breakthrough in talks (with Serbs), then this resolution will be carried - there will be no way of avoiding it,' Vitaly Churkin, a deputy foreign minister, told Itar-Tass news agency.

The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, denied that his forces wanted to overrun the town and accused the Muslims of launching attacks that had forced Serbian retaliation.

He said all Muslims would be free to stay in Srebrenica or to leave, so long as male fighters handed over their weapons to UN personnel.

However, Bosnian Serb forces prevented a UN contingent of Canadian troops from getting anywhere near Srebrenica. The 12- vehicle convoy, including four armoured personnel carriers, set out from the northern Muslim stronghold of Tuzla but was blocked at Saraci, 10 miles away.

The Muslims are also under pressure in central and southern Bosnia, where Croatian forces are attempting to capture areas assigned to the Croats under the peace plan drawn up by Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen.

In Vitez, 50 people have been killed by shelling in an area where British troops are stationed.

The peace plan, calling for a decentralised Bosnia with 10 provinces organised mainly on ethnic lines, has been endorsed by the Croats and, reluctantly, by the Muslims but not by the Serbs.

Meanwhile, General Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander in the Gulf War, emerged yesterday as a surprise front-runner for a new post as an international 'heavyweight' to police sanctions against Serbia. The job was proposed by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, as part of his package of measures designed to tighten economic pressure on the Serbs. The plan has not yet been discussed with allies, although Mr Major may take it up with President Clinton.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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