'The war continues on Monday': Despite new peace talks, Bosnia is braced for flare-up between Muslims and Croats. Robert Block reports from the besieged city of Mostar, the 'gateway to central Bosnia' and likely focus of the next round of killing

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The Independent Online
THE WORDS of the prophets in Mostar are scribbled in English by graffiti artists on abandoned buildings on the front line of this divided city. 'Naked prey', 'Fight on', and in an apparent reference to United Nations soldiers 'Bad Blue Boys' are painted on walls around Zahum district less than 50 yards from the front on the Croatian side of the Neretva river.

These messages were counterpointed by the thud of artillery and extended bursts of automatic weapons fire between Muslim and Croatian forces yesterday.

Despite the pressure of UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva today and concerted efforts to work out a truce by UN military and humanitarian personnel in Bosnia, fighting between Bosnian Croat and Muslim forces in Mostar rages unabated and looks set only to worsen.

Muslims yesterday refused to attend ceasefire talks in the nearby town of Medjugorje, dashing the likelihood of any end in fighting soon.

It is against this backdrop that Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg will today meet the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats in Geneva for further talks on the most recent Geneva peace plan for Bosnia. But no matter what hopes, if any, the co-chairmen of UN negotiations harbour, there are no illusions about the future here in Bosnia.

'We may have been negotiating this weekend but everyone knows the war continues on Monday,' a spokesman for the Bosnian Croat leader, Mate Boban, said on Saturday when the 'parliament' of the self-styled 'Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia' met to consider its response to the Geneva peace plan, which would divide Bosnia into a confederation of three ethnic mini-states.

A Bosnian Muslim delegation will go to Geneva today and demand that the map be altered to rule out territorial conquest by force or by 'ethnic cleansing'.

The Bosnian Serb parliament has ordered its delegation to demand the lifting of international sanctions imposed last year against Serbia and Montenegro before it accepts the plan.

In Mostar, neither the Muslims nor the Croats were deterred by the presence of 52 UN Spanish soldiers and 12 armoured vehicles in the eastern, mainly Muslim, side of the city. The soldiers were forced to remain there in exchange for the release on Saturday of a humanitarian convoy held hostage for three days by the Muslim residents of eastern Mostar. It was hoped by some UN officials that the presence of the Spanish soldiers could lead to a lasting ceasefire in the town. But the Muslims' refusal to attend ceasefire talks made that highly unlikely.

Croatian forces in Mostar believe that the Bosnian government in Sarajevo is seeking to delay its support for the Geneva plan in the hope that Muslims can seize more land on the ground, especially in Mostar. 'Their aim is to take Mostar in order to gain an exit to the sea,' Veso Vegar, the Croatian defence council (HVO) spokesman, said yesterday.

The UN chief of mission in the former Yugoslavia, Cedric Thornberry, who accompanied the convoy and was held hostage until its release, said the fighting in Mostar was of extreme significance. 'Mostar is not just about a city under siege, it is also about a city that is every way the gateway to central Bosnia which is the most unstable, dangerous and fought-over area of Bosnia,' he said. It was imperative to resolve the situation in Mostar 'without disturbing the Stoltenberg-Owen plan' which would make the city a European Community protectorate for two years.

Muslims are not the only ones contemplating winning on the battlefield what they could not achieve in negotiations. Mr Boban said at a press conference on Saturday that his Herzog-Bosna republic, currently 'a state without borders', would have its frontiers decided by negotiations or if necessary through fighting.

A recent string of military successes by the Muslim-led Bosnian army in central Bosnia has worried the Bosnian Croats, who expect a big Muslim offensive against Mostar in the next week or so. Mr Vegar said that the Muslims were using the UN troops as part of a ploy to prepare for their offensive. He accused the Muslims of using the UN convoys as a shield from behind which they were firing on the Croatian side of the city. 'To a certain extent the Muslims have been trying to take advantage of the UN presence to provoke the Croats,' one UN source said.

The Croats maintain that a ceasefire put in place when the UN aid convoy entered the city on Wednesday was holding, but there was no evidence of any truce yesterday. Guns blazed throughout the afternoon with some volleys lasting close to half an hour. 'The Muslims fire and we answer . . . the amount of shooting is normal,' said Nikola Raguz, a deputy HVO commander.

Yet despite the amount of fire there were few reports of casualties over the past few days. Doctors at the White Hill hospital in Mostar say that in the past week an average of three people a day have arrived with gunshot or shrapnel wounds, far fewer than the 60 brought in on 13 August.

One of the doctors treating the wounded, including HVO soldiers, is Ekrim Divanovic, a Muslim whose family has lived in Mostar for 250 years. When asked why he was working in a hospital that was considered by the Muslims to be the 'Croatian side' of the city he replied: 'This is also my city, my people, my friends, the same as on the other side . . . . The town is divided only by politics. Not everyone is filled with hatred.'

When asked what he thought of the international efforts to resolve the fighting in Bosnia he said: 'After the Munich agreement Churchill told Chamberlain, 'When faced with the choice between war and dishonour you chose dishonour.' That is what the world has done here.'

Muslims' demands, page 6