Serbs take key Bosnian town

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The Independent Online
THE WAR in Bosnia took a dramatic new twist last night, as Serbian forces announced they had captured Bosanski Brod, the last big town in northern Bosnia in Croatian hands.

The fall of this Croatian stronghold to the Serbs completes their conquest of northern Bosnia and markedly raises the chances of an all-out war developing between Croatia proper and the Bosnian Serb army. It represents the biggest strategic gain by the Serbs in the past few months of fighting.

Thousands of Croatian civilians last night were streaming across the bridge over the river Sava from the town to an uncertain sanctuary in Croatia, in a desperate flight from the advancing Serbian troops. A witness reported that the Serbs had advanced as far as the town's burnt-out oil refinery and had captured the Robna Kuca, the department store that lies in the main square.

Detachments of Croatian and Muslim troops were reported to be holding a narrow strip of territory along the river bank, where they were trying to safeguard the passage of refugees to Croatia.

The fall of the town created panic in the neighbouring Croatian industrial city of Slavonski Brod, directly across the Sava. 'This is the culmination of all our darkest fears,' said Jozo Meter, the local defence chief on the Croatian side. He appealed to civilians in Slavonski Brod to ignore rumours circulating in the city that the Serbs were on the point of crossing the river and entering the heart of Croatia. He called on the population to remain in air-raid shelters.

Serbian forces have besieged Bosanski Brod for six months. The first clashes in Bosnia, which marked the beginning of the civil war in the republic, started in the town in April.

During the last months of fighting, Bosanski Brod sustained massive air strikes from Serbian fighter MiGs flying in from Banja Luka, which tore out much of the town's residential housing and killed hundreds of people. But the failure of the Serbs to batter their way into the town earlier on created a false sense of security. Most Croats believed the town would never fall.

A tentative detente rumoured to have sprung up between Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, at the expense of Bosnian Muslims, is certain to be an immediate casualty of the latest Serbian offensive in northern Bosnia. There will now be strong pressure in Zagreb for the Croatian army to intervene directly in northern Bosnia, to safeguard Croatia's exposed underbelly.

For the Serbs, the capture of Bosanski Brod removes the biggest strategic threat to the corridor that links Serbian-held land in Bosnia and Croatia with Serbia proper.