Dragging Bihac through the mud back to 1914

Click to follow
THE Serbs were pulling a 105mm gun through the mud with a tractor, and a column of Bosnian Muslim prisoners, heads down in submission, were carrying pails of water into the town under a Serb rifle. Gunfire came from streets on the other side of th e town's gaunt medieval castle. But it was the worried Serb special forces colonel with the tunic insignia of a wolf and a sword who told this story. "The Croats are helping the 5th Corps. We're having missiles fired at us, and the Bosnian Muslims don't have them. They are Croatian missiles.''

Less than 24 hours earlier, the Croatian Foreign Minister had admitted for the first time that Croatian troops were assisting the Bosnian government's largely Muslim forces in Bihac, a significant widening of the war which the UN first condemned and thenaccepted, once it was evident that the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, had requested military assistance from Zagreb. The effects were already being felt by the Serbs.

The visit to Velika Kladusa yesterday evening was intended to show how the Serbs' Muslim allies - fighting for their multi-millionaire paymaster, Fikret Abdic - were on the point of recapturing the city from the Bosnian government's 5th Corps. So great was their confidence that tomorrow morning, Mr Abdic was due to announce the date on which 30,000 of his refugee Muslim citizens can return to their half-ruined homes. But in the northern suburbs of Velika Kladusa yesterday, Mr Abdic's men - and the Croat ian Serbs, the real besiegers of Bihac - appeared in serious difficulties.

.Serb officers emerged from a smart villa near the Muslim militiamen to prevent us driving further into town. ``You will be in danger - we think they're going to shell the city. Turn round - go back," one shouted at us.

Bosnia it may have been, but it looked more like a scene from the 1914-18 war. The pro-Serb Muslims all wore white ribbons on their arms - ``It's a military code,'' a Serb officer claimed without conviction - and one of the Muslims, with a bushy white beard, sat reading a book on the balcony of a shell-smashed bungalow. Wagon-loads of ammunition were being hauled up a long highway by carthorses led by Serbs in tattered, dark brown uniforms. It was a place of mud and dirt, a place that did not have the smell of victory about it.

All the way into Bosnia - into the Bihac pocket from which the UN is still trying to extract one-third of its so-called ``protection force'' - we passed groups of Serb soldiers from Krajina, none of whom are officially supposed to be in Bosnia at all, along with military trucks and armoured vehicles. Tracks gouged deep into the cold evening fields along the Krajina-Bosnia frontier betrayed the passing of the artillery that fires all night into Velika Kladusa. Until last week, Mr Abdic had appealed to the gunners not to target the city itself - he wants his refugees to have homes to return to - but by yesterday the rules had changed. The 5th Corps was fighting so hard that the shells were sent crashing into the civilian centre of the town.

Driving along one street into Velika Kladusa, we passed homes partially levelled by shellfire. Along a mud track behind the town, we found military telephone cable snaking through the fields - direct communications between the Krajina Serbs and the town's besiegers. Last night, General Sir Michael Rose, the UN commander in Bosnia, attempted to make his cautious way through Krajina into Bihac to talk to his 1,400 men in the pocket, but was peremptorily turned back by the Serbs.