Defiant Serbs fire on Dutch troops

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The Independent Online

Defence Correspondent

and agencies

Bosnian Serb forces advanced into the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica last night, defying a warning of Nato air strikes, and clashed with Dutch peace-keeping troops blocking their path. "The UN leadership is giving air strikes active consideration," said the UN spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Gary Coward.

He said the Dutch troops and advancing Serb infantry units exchanged fire for two hours before sunset brought a degree of calm. The Dutch troops were holding their ground. "The line is fairly thin," said Col Coward, describing it as the city's last defence. The Dutch Defence Ministry said the unit consists of about four armoured personnel carriers and 30 soldiers.

"If offensive actions continue in the morning we reserve the right to use Nato air power," Col Coward said. "The Bosnian Serb demand is completely unacceptable to us. The UN is determined to protect the enclave."

The warning came after about 80 Bosnian Serb infantrymen attacked a Dutch defence line. "The attack was answered by ... the Dutch," said a Dutch Defence Ministry spokesman.

During the evening the local Bosnian Serb commander contacted the commander of Dutch forces and told him the enclave's 42,000 occupants, its Bosnian government army defenders and Dutch UN troops should start pulling out this morning. The Bosnian Serb officer said the enclave's occupants must abandon their arms and leave within 48 hours. Col Coward said they already had reports of fearful Srebrenica residents moving north in response to the Serb advance.

Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said he did not think the Serbs would try to seize the whole enclave, because that would mean having to take responsibility for the entire population. About 4,000 refugees have fled into the town. "The streets are deserted, no one is venturing out. They are huddled in terribly overcrowded rooms," with no running water, said Mr Janowski.

UN officials believe the attack is a retaliation for a series of commando raids out of Srebrenica and an attempt to seize the east-west road south of the town through Zeleni Jadar. The Muslim enclave had included the road, making Serb communications difficult. The UN warned the Serbs on Sunday that it would defend its Dutch peace-keepers with air attacks, and the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, repeated the threat yesterday, saying: "The mandate we have is to protect the enclaves. We are ready in case of need to use the Air Force".

During their northward advance Serbian forces overran two UN observation posts, manned by 30 Dutch peace-keepers, but the UN said the Serbs had promised to release the men from their "temporary custody". A Dutch "blocking position" was set up in a valley just south of the town. The UN had pledged to call in "close air support", which is considered less provocative than air strikes.

The only true air strike so far - against a Bosnian Serb ammunition dump near Sarajevo at the end of May - was considered disproportionate, and resulted in the Serbs seizing hundreds of UN peace-keepers.

The Dutch peace-keepers, however, are caught between the Serbs and Bosnian government troops, who Lt-Col Coward said were restricting their freedom of movement and hindering the UN mission. Bosnian soldiers and civilians see the UN peace-keepers as a shield against Serb attacks and have tried to block them from withdrawing from dangerous positions.