'The only people left are the dead'

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IT WAS the UN force in Knin, from their compound about half a mile from the town centre, that kept the world informed of the development of the battle for the Krajina capital yesterday. In charge was a Canadian, Colonel Andrew Leslie, UN Chief of Staff of Sector South. Reached periodically on the telephone by international news agencies, Col Leslie and his staff recounted hour by hour the struggle taking place around them. This is the story as it emerged.

OVERNIGHT, and in the early morning, the United Nations peacekeepers watched streams of civilians and soldiers pouring out of Knin in cars, lorries and even tractors to escape the shellfire and possible capture by the Croats. Thousands were leaving. Amid what one witness called "epic scenes of chaos", most headed north in the hope of reaching Bosnian Serb territory.

The Croat army was just six miles away, and from dawn at around 5am their heavy guns rained shells down on Knin. "We lost count after 300 rounds," said Col Leslie in an early phone contact. "The streets are covered by rubble from artillery hits, smashed cars everywhere, the occasional body."

One shell landed just 100 yards from the UN compound, killing seven civilians and wounding 11. UN soldiers took some of the wounded to a hospital close by, but the conditions there were appalling. "There are bodies in the hallways. They've run out of supplies," reported Col Leslie.

Then a shell struck the hospital itself, leaving it without power. Although the Croats quickly declared that they were not targeting the hospital, it was decided that the sick and wounded would be safer in the UN compound, which meant transporting about 70 sick or wounded people through the shellfire and the scenes of bloodshed and destruction. "Our men saw 15 to 16 civilians, including women and children, lying dead in the streets," Col Leslie said.

By mid-morning it was clear that the relentless artillery barrage was having its effect and the Croats were gaining ground. Alun Roberts, another UN spokesman in Knin, said: "The Croat advance from the south would appear to be closing on the town. We have shellfire roaring over our heads."

Inside the compound were 330 UN personnel, together with almost 400 others - elderly men and women and very young children who had earlier sought shelter there. These had been joined by the evacuees from the hospital.

They were not Col Leslie's only worry: elsewhere in Knin and beyond were a number of UN observation posts and early in the day communications with several of them broke down. It was clear, however, that they were in trouble.

"Innumerable peacekeepers' observation posts and peacekeepers have been shot at," an anxious Col Leslie told one news agency during the morning. "We're starting to take some casualties up and down the line." Another officer from the Candian team, Major Alan Balfour, described the response: "We have sent APCs [armoured personnel carriers] out to collect our personnel, many of whom are in exposed positions." Making their way through the mayhem, the APCs picked up some 35 wounded and brought them back to the base past ghostly scenes. "Almost the only people remaining were the dead and the dying," said Major Balfour. Two Czech UN soldiers were wounded in an attack on their observation post near Gospic, to the west of Knin, and they died while being evacuated. A further 43 Canadian UN personnel were taken prisoner by the Croats but were reported safe in the coastal town of Zadar.

By late morning Col Leslie was reporting Croat troops penetrating Serb defences at several points on the edge of the town. "The Croats are very close," he said. "Serb tanks are returning fire right outside our compound and artillery is impacting inside Knin. Residents have gone."

At about 11am, it was not Serb tanks at the UN's gates, but Croat tanks. The attackers had punched through and the Serbs were on the run. Speedy negotiations with the Croats assured the safety of the UN force and those under its protection: "They've given us assurances they will not enter the compound," Major Balfour said. In return, the UN force had to promise to stay put.

At this stage there was still sporadic firing in the streets while the Croats mopped up, but within the hour Col Leslie saw the signal that proved beyond doubt that the battle for Knin was over: "The Croatian flag is flying on top of the castle," he said.