Thousands wait in fear of a massacre

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SARAJEVO - Bosnia appealed to the world yesterday to avert a massacre of thousands of civilians trapped in Srebrenica, after Serbian forces overnight pierced Muslim defence lines and probed the edge of the besieged town writes Marcus Tanner.

The French Foreign Ministry last night quoted a journalist in Srebrenica as saying Bosnian Serb forces had entered the town in helicopters, but there was no immediate confirmation of the report.

An amateur radio operator in Srebrenica said more than 100 mortar bombs hit the refugee-packed town centre, forcing tens of thousands to shelter in cellars.

The United Nations announced the outlines of what could be a negotiated surrender agreement between the town and the victorious Serbs. They said about 20 UN peace-keepers from Canada would go to Srebrenica from Tuzla today at the request of the Serbian side.

The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, denied his forces intended to overrun Srebrenica. 'We do not want to enter Srebrenica; we want to pacify the town,' he said.

Srebrenica was entirely surrounded by the Serbs, and all escape routes looked cut off. After overnight artillery and tank attacks, the Serbs held a crucial hillside overlooking the south-east approach to Srebrenica and could hit the centre at will with rifles.

There was no word on the fate of 16 international personnel in Srebrenica, including seven UN Canadian peace-keepers and a four- man medical team from the Belgian Medecins sans Frontieres. 'They are in their shelters like the rest of us,' said Ibrahim Becirevic, the 30- year-old amateur radio operator who throughout the 12-month siege has provided the only direct link between the town and Sarajevo. 'Whatever happens to us, please make sure they are all right. They were our friends.'

In an appeal to the world to save Srebrenica from annihilation, the Bosnian government called on the UN to send peace-keepers to the town, on Nato to neutralise Serb aggression with military intervention, and on the West to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. 'We appeal to you on behalf of the people of Srebrenica who are threatened with extinction,' they said. 'Thousands of women, children and elderly are going to be massacred. Do you understand this fact?'

In Geneva, the UN announced plans to evacuate as many as 30,000 civilians from Srebrenica to the Bosnian-held city of Tuzla. But there was no explanation of how this enormous task could be carried out. In Sarajevo, Tony Land, a UN refugee official, said 50 lorries were on standby in Belgrade, but he emphasised that they could bring out only a few thousand.