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Ceasefire hopes rise despite Nato strikes

Bosnia conflict: US envoy talks of serious proposal by Bosnian government as peace mission starts to regain momentum


and Agencies

There were renewed hopes of an early ceasefire yesterday, despite a brief resumption of Nato air-strikes and further gains by Serb forces counter- attacking in north-west Bosnia. After meeting officials in Sarajevo, Richard Holbrooke, the US peace envoy, said the Bosnian government had made a "serious proposal" for a ceasefire.

Jadranko Prlic, a Croat who is vice-premier of the Bosnian government, told the Sarajevo daily newspaper Oslobodjenje that a resolution of the war may be near. "I am not being an optimist," he said. "I am just really assessing the situation.In the next few weeks, we will have a definitive solution." Aleksa Buha, foreign minister in the self-declared Bosnian Serb state, said a cease-fire "could be signed on 20 October in Washington".

The optimism was ruffled by the first Nato air raids for two weeks when warplanes fired missiles at three Bosnian Serb radar sites. Nato said Serb anti-aircraft radar locked onto the planes and they fired in self- defence. A spokesman said the planes fired two missiles at sites in southern and central Bosnia, and that a third was fired at a site in central Bosnia.

Despite these attacks, it appeared that the US peace mission, which had been running into the usual Balkan quicksands, might be regaining momentum. Mr Holbrooke has gained general agreements on a territorial division of Bosnia between multi-ethnic and Serb statelets and power-sharing in a postwar government. A ceasefire could pave the way for a full-scale peace conference to establish the final details. The envoy is due to meet the Serb President, Slobodan Milosevic, in Belgrade today.

The Bosnian government's willingness to consider a ceasefire may be linked to the success of the Bosnian Serbs in regaining some of the territory in northern Bosnia rolled over by Muslims and Croats last month. Exhausted and disgruntled, the Bosnian Army Fifth Corps is falling back slowly before a rebel Serb counter-attack along a front line stretching more than 100 miles from Otoka, 5 miles north of Bosanska Krupa to the main road leading to the Serb-held town of Mrkonjic Grad.

"The situation is not that good at the moment - I've been on the line for 23 days without a break and now I only have 24 hours off," said a Fifth Corps soldier in Bosanska Krupa. A punk with a studded dog-collar and a bandolier, he was silenced by a disapproving military policeman who announced that morale was good. The Serbs had taken some ground to the north and east but "it's a tactic", he explained.

There are similar tales from soldiers in and around the town of Kljuc, the base for troops advancing north to Sanski Most and east to Mrkonjic Grad. "They brought us from Sarajevo to work as police in Kljuc then they sent us to the front line to fight like ordinary soldiers," said one young man, limping from a wound he said was caused by fragments from a missile fired from a Serb aircraft.

After the stunning success of the September offensive by the Fifth Corps attacking out of Bihac - where they had been under severe siege for more than three years - in concert with Croatian troops, the momentum has died. A few days ago the Tigers, an elite unit of the Fifth Corps, had to make a stand to allow their comrades to escape during an attack that went horribly wrong. The line broke and the Serbs retook several kilometres of land north of Kljuc.

Bosnian officers say their casualties pale in comparison to those suffered by the Serbs, but the surgical and intensive care wards at Bihac hospital are filled with young men. Death notices are to be seen everywhere - in the past week two senior officers have been killed - and even the Fifth Corps commander, General Atif Dudakovic, has been wounded. But despite the problems with holding the line, few people fear that a resurgent Serb army will retake the newly captured territories. "The Fifth Corps is the heavenly force, and the Serbs have no chance of taking Bosanska Krupa now," said Vera Suljanovic, who recently moved back to the ruins of her car repair shop.

Refugees expelled by the Serbs and resettled in Kljuc 10 days ago - against their will - are terrified, however, by the prospect of an enemy attack, looking up nervously at the sound of planes overhead and the crump of explosions.

"We are afraid of the Serbs - perhaps they will occupy Kljuc again and kill us all if they find us here," one woman said. "The line is very near ... " said an old man, his voice trailing off.