Armies skirmish as world waits for guns to fall silent

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The Independent Online


Battlefields across Bosnia were mostly quiet yesterday, but international observers fear an upsurge in fighting to win last-minute gains before the ceasefire that is due to take effect on Tuesday. Skirmishes continued along two fronts in north-western Bosnia, where Serbs claimed to have retaken Kljuc - a story refuted by one foreigner who visited the town yesterday and said government soldiers appeared at ease - and Croatian artillery weighed in to support an expected Bosnian counter-attack beyond the town of Bosanska Krupa.

"Kljuc is safe and sound," the witness said. But with the arrival in northern Bosnia of a Croatian army artillery unit with at least two batteries of heavy guns, he said he expects to see a serious push against the rebel Serbs within 48 hours. "There is a build-up of forces," said another observer. "Either they expect a [Serb] counter-attack, or they are planning to attack. Something will happen."

As most foreigners have been barred from the area, specific information is hard to come by; but the implication is that the Bosnian and Croatian forces are planning to push north and east from Bosanska Krupa, towards the contested town of Otoka and the Serb-held areas of Prijedor and Sanski Most. The latter two towns are important and emotional targets for many government troops from the area whose friends and families were killed, imprisoned or expelled in the summer of 1992.

"It is rather quiet today," Major Myriam Sochacki, a UN spokeswoman in Sarajevo, said yesterday. "Bosanska Krupa is reported as tense and obviously the fighting is ongoing because we have no freedom of movement south of Ripac [along the road to Kljuc]."

The fall of Kljuc - claimed by the Serbs on Thursday night - would be a serious blow to Bosnian forces seeking control over the main road from Bihac to central Bosnia. It would mark another chapter in the never-ending nightmare for around 300 Muslim refugees re-settled in Kljuc last month only one week after being expelled from their homes by Serb authorities and refused asylum in Croatia. But elsewhere, the front lines were calmer. Although peace-keepers have virtually no access to contested areas, they believe the fighting has died down around Mount Ozren and the Serb-held town of Doboj, scene of a major government offensive over the past few weeks.

The Bosnian army, flushed with its recent successes, may be content now to dig in and hold on to its gains until Tuesday, marshalling its forces against any possible Serb attacks. "Generals and soldiers have four more days to show what they can do on the ground, and then there will be lights out on all Bosnian battlefields," an optimistic editorial in the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje said.