A small battle slows the Muslim-Croat juggernaut

Lusci Palanka - An urgent voice, crackling through the radio, broke into the casual banter. "Something must be happening," Rifet, a young Bosnian soldier, said casually over the sound of gunfire in the hills near by. The "something" appears to have been a chaotic clash that killed at least one Bosnian soldier and wounded several more close to Lusci Palanka.

The front line - at least yesterday - was only 1,000m from his command post, at the western edge of Lusci Palanka, a sprawling ghost village, its only remaining inhabitant an elderly, confused Serb woman. Soldiers waved us happily through the few checkpoints along the road from the fallen town of Bosanska Krupa to Palanka; those posted in the town were surprised, but friendly. But the fighting close by intensified during the afternoon, as attested by the quickening flow of ambulance traffic back to Bosanska Krupa.

At the town's tiny hospital, doctors struggled to patch the wounded for transport to Bihac without the benefit of running water or anaesthetics, judging by the moans of pain from a soldier with a bullet wound. An ambulance screamed into the car park with a full load from the Palanka skirmish. One man had died en route from a bullet wound, his eyes half-open, his limbs slumped in unnatural pose, a ventilator clamped between his teeth.

Four comrades clambered out, bandaged at aid stations near the front, resigned to the wait for further treatment. The men, members of the 505 Brigade, had broken through Serb lines on the edge of Palanka but found far more of the enemy than expected, the driver explained. "There was a lot of chaos," he said. "they were all mingled together." He sponged the dead man's blood off the stretcher, using a few drops of water from a tank outside the emergency room, and prepared for the return trip.

A second ambulance pulled up, with four more wounded soldiers, as a young doctor knelt before the tank, washing surgical instruments. A nurse washed blood off the tarmac.

In Palanka, a small frail woman dressed all in black wandered through a draughty cottage. "Poor Mara, unhappy Mara," she keened, a Serb left behind when her neighbours fled the Bosnian advance last week. Bosnian soldiers have brought her bread and water from a well a mile away, but say she would not move to a warmer house. "I'm poor, I'm not good, how can I be all right on my own?" she said blankly. "My two daughters are in Banja Luka."

Rifet and the other men from 505 Brigade have an eye on Banja Luka too, the Serb citadel beyond the town of Sanski Most, which lies 10 miles east of Palanka. Their lightning advance from the Bihac pocket, in which the Fifth Corps doubled the size of their enclave and joined up with troops from the Seventh Corps, based in central Bosnia, seems to have been halted at last.

"Up to Jasenica it was going smoothly, we just drove in. After that it got rougher," said Hidajet Mulalic, an artillery man.

There are few signs of heavy fighting along the road from Krupa to Palanka, and only a few houses burnt down along the 25-mile stretch. One was smouldering yesterday close to what must have been a Serb tank position: the road was scarred by a large crater - "One of ours", a hitch-hiking soldier said proudly - and several large shell cases.

Buoyed by their successes so far, the Bosnian soldiers are keen to press on towards Sanski Most, Prijedor and, eventually, Banja Luka. "If God allows, we'll go forward, because we're fighting not for one town but for Bosnia," Hasib, Rifet's commander, said austerely, declining all invitations to specify exactly how far the line was from Sanski Most and how his comrades in the hills north and south were doing.

He was bullish about his army's prospects, brushing aside suggestions that the Fifth Corps is exhausted after three years of siege and over- stretched by the offensive. Certainly the fighting so far, while causing hundreds of Bosnian casualties, does not seem to have been so fierce as to prevent a relatively orderly withdrawal of refugees.

The houses in Jasenica, along the road from Krupa, and Palanka - both wholly Serb villages, the soldiers said - were mostly undamaged. Most soldiers said they were ready to see Serb civilians return under government rule, but did not expect it to happen soon.

Two soldiers marched west, shepherding a middle-aged Serb, his feet bare save for holed socks. He was not bound, but the soldiers prodded him to move him along. They were not keen to chat.

The same could not be said for the military policeman at the checkpoint on the return journey to Krupa. "What time did you drive through?" he asked crossly, clearly under recent orders to keep civilians out of the area. Oblivious to his concern, one of our army hitch-hikers spotted a friend at the check-point. "The operation to take Sanski Most has just begun," he said happily.