UN convoy to relieve Muslim enclave: Refugees have boosted Srebrenica population to 60,000 during year of shelling

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UNITED NATIONS workers are preparing to send an emergency aid convoy this week to the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, one of the last remaining Muslim enclaves where tens of thousands of people have been under Serbian blockade for almost a year.

The town has become the focus of relief efforts since the enclave of Cerska fell to Serbian forces last week.

Cerska, little more than a string of houses and farms in a valley near the Drina river, was the second Muslim enclave to fall to Serbian forces in the past month. The nearby settlement of Kamenica ended resistance on 13 February. Several thousand Muslims are believed to have fled each enclave and, in severe cold and danger, to have crossed through forests over Serbian lines into Bosnian government-held territory.

Apart from Konjevic Polje and the equally small settlement of Zepa, the last remaining Muslim strongholds in eastern Bosnia are Gorazde and Srebrenica. An influx of refugees into those two towns is thought to have boosted the populations to about 70,000 and 60,000 respectively. Encircling Serbian artillery units have rained shells on the towns for months, and only limited supplies of international aid have been allowed through Serbian lines.

Six US aircraft dropped 38 tons of food and medicine over Srebrenica early yesterday, but there was no word on how successful the mission had been. According to Simon Mardel, a doctor who works for the World Health Organisation and who visited Srebrenica last weekend, more than 20 people are dying there every day from wounds and from illnesses related to cold and malnutrition. He said at least 2,000 sick and wounded were trapped in the town and 9,000 women and children wanted to be moved out.

The UN operation seems certain to infuriate Bosnian Serb commanders, who say Muslim reports of starvation there are exaggerated and that Srebrenica is used as a base for attacks on Serbian positions. The Serbs could easily delay the convoy if they wished, since the lorries will have to pass through the Serbian-held town of Bratunac six miles north of Srebrenica.

The first independent witness to visit Cerska reported at the weekend that the entire civilian population had fled. General Philippe Morillon, the commander of UN forces in Bosnia, said it appeared Serbian forces had taken full control of Cerska last Thursday.

However, the General said he had found no evidence in support of Bosnian Muslim claims that hundreds of civilians had either been killed by Serbian forces or had starved to death. While cautioning that his visit to Cerska on Saturday had been brief, he said: 'As a soldier, I unfortunately had the knack of smelling death. I didn't smell it.'

General Morillon also entered Konjevic Polje, another eastern Bosnian settlement where Muslims have sought sanctuary from Serbian attack. He described the situation there as 'difficult, but not too dramatic . . . they are suffering from deprivation, but not too much from hunger'. He said that, contrary to initial reports last week, many people in the region had received supplies of food and medicine dropped by US planes.

However, the commander of Bosnian government forces said yesterday that General Morillon had been duped by Serbs. 'Unfortunately the General arrived too late,' Sefer Halilovic told Bosnian radio. 'If he had come immediately . . . a lot of civilians would have been saved.'

Despite the grim conditions, the Muslim defenders of Gorazde and Srebrenica have succeeded in holding out against what appear to be overwhelming odds.

As Serbian forces tightened their grip, the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali said yesterday that UN member states should be prepared to send ground troops to Bosnia if the Serbs refused to withdraw from occupied territory. 'We have as an objective the withdrawal of the Serbs, and if they will not withdraw then we'll have to take the necessary measures,' Mr Boutros- Ghali said on ABC television.

Asked what those measures might be, he said that if the Serbs defy international pressure to pull back, 'there is only one solution, which is enforcement. And again, the members . . . must be ready to send troops on the ground.'

Les Aspin, the US Defense Secretary, speaking on the same program, said US policy was to commit American troops only after a peace accord is signed.

Doors shut on fleeing Muslims, page 10

Leading article, page 18