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100,000 fleeing Serbs trapped between armies

More than 100,000 refugees were trapped in the open yesterday by advancing Croatian and Bosnian forces who shelled some of them and torched the homes of others, according to UN officials.

The human misery created by Croatia's recapture of most of the land held by its rebel Serbs unfolded south of Zagreb, where tens of thousands huddled around a UN base and 50,000 jammed a road south into Serb-held Bosnia, after the triumphant Croatian army agreed to allow safe passage. A statement by the Croatian army supreme commander, General Zvonimir Cervenko, read out on state television, said Serb forces began surrendering at 7pm in exchange for safe passage out to Serb-held Bosnia.

But the deal did not cover the Bosnian Army V Corps, attacking out of the Bihac enclave, and heavy fighting involving all three armies in the border town of Dvor threatened to scupper the agreement.

Refugees south of Topusko, 40 miles south of Zagreb, were shelled by either Croatian or Bosnian troops, said a UN aid spokesman, Kris Janowski. Quoting UN field workers near the shelling, he said an unknown number of people had been killed. Ukrainian peace-keepers had seen Bosnian troops torching homes, said another UN spokesman, Chris Gunness.

Yugoslavia, which has done nothing to save Krajina, yesterday announced a partial mobilisation in response to the fighting in Croatia. The UN believes 150 tanks have been dispatched to the border with Serb-held eastern Slavonia, which Belgrade has long had an interest in annexing. So far, Zagreb has refrained from attacking eastern Slavonia; diplomats fear such a course could spark a wider war between Zagreb and Belgrade.

A Clinton administration official warned that a "deadly and destructive fight" could erupt in the Balkans between a victorious Croatian army and Serb forces.

As the White House expressed growing hope for peace in Bosnia, the official told reporters that Washington was watching for any miscalculation between Croatia and Serbian government troops and armour. "It would be a deadly and destructive fight," said the official.

But the White House continued to express a belief that the Croatian offensive could create a new dynamic toward peace in the region that would lead to a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Bosnia.

Despite the mounting tensions in eastern Slavonia, the last relic of the Krajina Serb statelet perched on the border with Serbia, the immediate focus was the plight of the Serbs in Croatia.

Rida Ettarashany, a UN spokesman in Zagreb, said 30,000 people were trapped in the Topusko area, with 10,000 more near Petrinja and another 15,000 close to Dvor, on the border with Serb-held northern Bosnia. The UN, which has a Danish contingent in Dvor, fears many casualties among civilians caught up in the battle. "There are reports of really heavy fighting in Dvor, with all three armies [Croatian, Bosnian and Krajina Serb] in the town," Mr Ettarashany said.

"At one school inside Dvor there is one unit from the Croatian army which is locked in a fierce battle with Krajina Serb troops inside the school."

In Topusko town, where around 7,000 people are camped out close to a UN base, a UN official spoke of tragic scenes among terrified civilians. "The situation is very bad," James Kanu said. "There is a terrible story of a pregnant woman here at headquarters, crying all day. There are many more people outside, 5,000 or more, who can't move."

Some 80,000 Krajina Serbs have already crossed into Bosnia amid reports that men of military age seeking refuge in Serbia are being corralled by Bosnian Serb troops. The exodus has fuelled fears in Sarajevo of a fresh injection of manpower into the over-stretched Bosnian Serb army, and the government has warned the UN not to be seen to help Krajina Serbs enter Bosnia.

The UN is concerned about possible abuses by the victors, including attacks on refugee convoys, and will despatch teams of monitors to Croatia.

The chairman of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Cornelio Sommaruga, said last night that humanitarian aid would begin arriving today to the refugees in northern Bosnia, raising the bizarre prospect of aid flights to the Bosnian Serbs who have shut down the Sarajevo airlift for four months. Larry Hollingworth of the World Food Programme, who has long experience in Bosnia, believes this crisis should not be treated in isolation from others.

"For the first time the Serb side has problems which they themselves in the past have inflicted on others - large, major and urgent problems," he said.