Bosnia battle traps terrified refugees

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Thousands of terrified refugees were trapped in heavy fighting as Bosnian troops fought to recapture the strategic town of Jajce yesterday. Reports of between 5,000 and 20,000 refugees cowering under Serb artillery fire were reaching the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Anders Levensen, the UNHCR field co-ordinator, said the refugees had been trapped while trying to flee the town seized by the Serbs on Thursday after a five- month siege. Mr Levensen said many refugees had halted on the road after darkness fell. 'They are being shelled and they cannot move forward,' he said, but he could not confirm reports that several people had been hurt, and one woman killed. Mr Levensen said the group was trapped in Karaula, a cluster of hamlets four miles from their goal of Travnik, a large town 25 miles east of Jajce.

Units of the British contingent of the UN protection force had set off for the region, the Unprofor spokesman in Sarajevo, Adnan Abdelrazek, said. The Unprofor commander in Bosnia-Herzegovina, General Philippe Morillon, had sent a ceasefire proposal from the Bosnian presidency to the Serb forces but had received no answer. Radio Sarajevo said street-fighting in Jajce was continuing, and the Croat army announced a counter-offensive. Belgrade Radio earlier this week had triumphantly announced the imminent 'liberation' of Jajce, where 81 per cent of the 40,000 population are non-Serbs.

The announcement that Serbian leaders in Croatia and Bosnia will meet today to form a 'Union of Serbian states', which will then link up with Serbia and Montenegro, yesterday dealt a blow to the UN peace plan for Croatia. It also increases the chances of renewed fighting between Croatia and the local Serbs, in which UN peace- keepers could be caught up. The 'joint parliament' of Bosnian and Croatian Serbs is due to meet for the first time today in Prijedor, northern Bosnia, to start work on uniting the two regions and to set up a joint currency, defence and citizenship. They said they counted on support from Serbia and Montenegro in forming the 'Union of Serbian states'.

If it is carried through, the project will fulfil the aim of greater Serbia, which has been championed by the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, in the teeth of bitter opposition from the international community. European and US leaders insist on the borders of the former Yugoslav republics staying where they were fixed in 1945.

The UN plan for Croatia has long shown signs of collapse. Cedric Thornberry, the UN chief of civil affairs, on Thursday described the situation in the UN- controlled zones as one of 'deteriorating anarchy'. None of the tasks envisaged under the UN plan - re-opening roads, returning displaced refugees to their homes and demilitarising paramilitary groups - has seen any progress at all. The UN peace- keepers have proved unwilling or unable to confront the Serb paramilitaries who hold effective power in the zones.

The project to unite the Serb- held territories in Bosnia and Croatia deals another slap in the face to the peace mediators, Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance. Both Serbian and Croatian leaders in Bosnia have turned down their proposed new constitution for the republic. Nikola Koljevic, a Bosnian Serb negotiator at the Geneva talks, compared the plan to Hitler's attempt to destroy Serbia in the Second World War.

Jajce was the seat of the last Bosnian king in the mid-15th century, Stjepan Tomasevic, who held off a Turkish siege for more than a year. His desperate appeals to Western Christendom for military aid against the invaders went unanswered - a story with obvious parallels today.