City braces itself for big battle to end siege

Sarajevo crisis: After 38 months, a battered people barricade homes and stockpile food
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To the distant thunder of artillery, the people of Sarajevo yesterday braced themselves for battle. They stocked up with food and fuel, piled sandbags in front of their windows and took cover in whatever is left of their homes after three years of war.

The authorities extended the nightly curfew and police cleared city centre office buildings, ordering workers to return home and take cover. Two shells landed near the television building, injuring an elderly man, and snipers were active.

Shoppers crowded into sparsely stocked shops, sweeping tinned food and pasta from the shelves. "I have hardly anything left in the store - I've sold everything," said Nezir Muhic, a shop-owner. "I've worked as much today as in the whole of last week."

He attributed the rush to belief in an imminent attempt by the Bosnian army to break the Serb siege, but added that he had not raised prices: "It's forbidden." One woman walked away clutching a single white candle - the last in stock.

The Sarajevo daily Oslobodenje made no mention of the rumours of an attack, but ran a front-page interview given by President Alija Izetbegovic to the Associated Press warning the UN against interfering in an assault. Up to 5,000 peace-keepers in the city - 89 of them barricaded in weapons sites on the Serb side, and 28 held hostage - would be in obvious danger during any attempt to break the Serb stranglehold.

"[The UN] cannot act against the interests of the Republic of Bosnia- Herzegovina. If that was the case, the consent for their presence would be cancelled," Mr Izetbegovic said. "We will not bargain for our freedom." It is far from clear, however, that yesterday's fighting presages a move to end the three-year siege.

"It is one of three possibilities: a feint, an attack with a limited objective, or the big push," said one UN officer. The government has slowly built up its army, and has been successful in seven of the past nine offensives, but although the tide seems to be turning, the rebellious Serbs can still count on a fearsome armoury.

UN officials have described reports of up to 30,000 government troops in the Visoko area as exaggerated, saying they believe the number is closer to 15,000. However, troops are also deployed south and west of the city, and thousands are based in Sarajevo. They suggest the army may have more limited goals, such as the road from Vogosca to Olovo, a Serb supply route that could, if secured by the Bosnian army, offer an alternative road to the north-eastern city of Tuzla.

The heavy Bosnian artillery fire directed at Serb positions north and west of the city is the fruit of months of smuggling and arms manufacturing by the government, in the face of the international arms embargo. The army has also captured Serb materiel in the seizures of Cemerska Planina and Mount Vlasic in central Bosnia.

The attack may also be proof that the nominal allies of the Croat-Muslim federation are at last co-operating: Bosnian army sources say the Bosnian Croat militia - in effect a branch of the regular Croatian army - has supplied firepower and even weapons to Sarajevo's forces.

Apart from the shelling of Ilijas and Vogosca, the UN reported exchanges of fire in Hadzici and Bare, Serb-held villages west of Sarajevo. The latter houses a weapons collection point where two French NCOs have held out against Serb hostage-takers for three weeks. UN officials suspect the Serbs may have reneged on their promise to release all peace-keepers in order to maintain an international presence at the weapons sites, which still contain almost 200 Serb heavy weapons and would therefore present obvious targets to the Bosnian army.

Two French positions on Mount Igman, west of the city, were hit by artillery yesterday, assumed to have come from the Serbs, but there were no casualties. Such activity may, however, encourage the speedy deployment of the rapid reaction force, armed with artillery, that is intended to protect peace- keepers.

Meanwhile, the UN yesterday refused to swap four Serb prisoners captured by French soldiers last month for the peace-keepers still held hostage and the blockaded soldiers. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, who had promised to release all hostages, is now demanding a prisoner exchange.