Bosnia: Bihac shelling destroys UN peace-keeping role: Serbs from 'protected' Krajina step up attacks on Bosnia, writes Marcus Tanner in Zagreb

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THE United Nations peace-keeping operation in Croatia was in tatters yesterday as Serbian forces operating from a 'UN-protected zone' accelerated a tank and infantry offensive into north-west Bosnia.

For a second day a force of 300 Serbian troops, supported by 10 tanks and artillery, shelled Muslim villages several miles inside the Bosnian border near the city of Bihac. United Nations refugee officials based in the town of Velika Kladusa reported they could hear Serbian shells pounding Bosnian positions 18km to the east.

A UN spokesman in Zagreb said the attack appeared to be aimed at overrunning the village of Vrnograc. If the offensive succeeds, Serbian forces will be close to surrounding Velika Kladusa, a large market town of 60,000 Muslims.

The Serbs fired 2,000 mortar bombs from what is supposed to be a UN demilitarised zone in Croatia on to Bosnian-held positions in the Bihac region on Tuesday.

In Bihac, the Bosnian authorities said 3,000 people had fled their homes from advancing Serbs so far, taking their livestock with them. There were no reports of the number killed and wounded. Serbian forces inside the UN-protected zone in Croatia at the same time hijacked an aid convoy heading for Bihac. UN refugee officials stood by helplessly as Serbs made off with 19 tons of food, mainly ready-to-eat meals.

General Lars-Eric Wahlgren, UN Protection Force commander in the former Yugoslavia, has dispatched 300 French UN troops to Bihac to bolster a small force already in the region. They have orders to prevent Serbian attacks against civilians.

'I have ordered my soldiers to prevent all violations of human rights,' General Wahlgren said in Belgrade. 'They will be empowered to use force if they are prevented by force from carrying out their tasks.'

The swift deployment of UN troops in Bihac forms part of a new policy of sending in peace-keepers before armed conflicts get totally out of hand. The UN is desperate to avert a repeat of the tragic events in the town of Srebrenica, where troops were deployed at the last minute, only after Serbian forces had practically taken the town and had inflicted horrendous casualties on the civilians crammed inside.

The Bihac pocket is one of the largest Muslim-held enclaves in Bosnia and comprises several big towns, including Bihac, Velika Kladusa and Cazin. A pre-war population in the region of 250,000, almost all Muslims, has swelled to nearer 300,000 following an influx of Muslim refugees from other parts of Serbian-held northern Bosnia.

UN officials in Zagreb strenuously deny that the Serbian offensive into Bosnia from a UN zone in Croatia is an embarrassment to their peace- keeping operation. They say that after Croatian forces re-took a sliver of Serb-held land around the coastal port of Zadar on 22 January, Serbs took back all the heavy weapons placed earlier in UN custody. 'We have not had these weapons in our control since January, and getting them back is the priority,' a UN spokesman said. The UN has complained to Serbian authorities in Knin about the offensive, but 'no response has been received', he added.

In spite of UN claims, the end result of the latest Serbian offensive from a UN zone in Croatia is likely to be a lot more criticism of the way the peace-keeping operation in Croatia has been run. More than a year after the UN deployed 14,000 troops in Serb-held parts of Croatia, the peace plan for the republic drawn up by Cyrus Vance appears dead in the water.

No implementation has begun of any of the points in the plan, starting with the surrender by Serbs of heavy weaponry, the return of some territory to direct Croatian control, the return of refugees to their homes and the creation of mixed Croat-Serb police forces for the entire region.

Instead, Croatian Serbs have taken the phrase 'UN-protected zone' quite literally. Using peace-keepers as a shield, they have consolidated an ethnically pure Serbian state, called the Krajina.

Serbian leaders in Belgrade and in Bosnia deny any connection with the offensive against Bihac. The Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, suggested the attack was the work of irresponsible individuals.

The Serbian denials are not convincing. Their forces in Bosnia and Croatia are highly integrated, with a common patron in the President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic. The Serbs could be trying to take advantage of the vicious struggle between Muslims and Croats for control of central Bosnia to launch fresh attacks throughout Bosnia. On Tuesday, Serbs turned back a UN food convoy heading for the besieged Muslim town of Gorazde. They told the UN not even to try to send another convoy for two weeks.

In central Bosnia, in spite of a ceasefire agreement between Croats and Muslims, battles still rage around the ethnic Croat town of Busovaca, which the Muslims have been almost surrounded.

British UN forces based at Vitez, central Bosnia, are patrolling an agreed ceasefire line between the Muslims and the Croats. But the British UN forces face a separate threat - attacks by Serbian forces positioned only 20km to the north on Mount Vlasic.

Major Bryan Watters, of the Cheshire regiment in Vitez, has said a local Serbian commander threatened the Cheshires with 'immediate shelling if Western air strikes on Bosnian Serb positions take place. Vitez is certainly within the range of Serb artillery stationed on the Vlasic feature,' he said.

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