Bosnia: New commander vows to return fire

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The United Nations commander in Sarajevo yesterday condemned Bosnian Serbs for bombarding French peace-keepers in the city with tank and mortar shells, and warned he would order return fire immediately if his troops were attacked again.

Visibly angered by the hour-long bombardment of 100 French soldiers, as they set up a new base in a former stadium in Zetra, General Francis Briquemont said it was 'the last time we restrain ourselves from exercising the right to self-defence. I have told my commanders they must immediately open fire against the aggressor'.

The Belgian general said he was certain that Serb forces were guilty, and dismissed a Serb army letter expressing 'deep sorrow and condemnation' for the shelling, while blaming Bosnian Muslims. 'There is no way whatever this was the work of the Muslims,' he said, jabbing at a map of Sarajevo.

The bombardment took place in mid-afternoon, blatantly violating an agreed ceasefire which had come into force in the morning. None of the troops was killed.

But the general steared clear of suggestions that he would order air strikes on Serb positions if his troops come under fire again, although they are authorised under a Security Council resolution. 'We have to reply within seconds and air support is not possible in two or three seconds,' he said. 'We have the means to reply to such attacks from the ground.'

The Serbs destroyed four UN vehicles in Zetra by direct fire. Several others were badly damaged by flying shrapnel in the attack. 'This was the most prolonged and sustained attack the UN in Bosnia has experienced,' said the UN spokesman in Sarajevo, Barry Frewer.

The UN chief may have decided to waive his right to blast the Serbs off their hill-top above Zetra, out of concern for the new round of Bosnia peace talks, which were due to start today in Geneva. Instead Gen Briquement said he would seek a personal explanation from the Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic.

Although UN observers noted 480 shells pounded Sarajevo yesterday, making a mockery of the new ceasefire agreement, Bosnia's Muslim President, Alija Izetbegovic, left to attend the talks with Bosnian Serbs and Croats and international mediators Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg on the dividing the republic into three ethnic mini-states.

Mr Izetbegovic is a bitter opponent of Serb and Croat plans to split Bosnia into ethnic units. But in a sign that he would relax his opposition to partition if the Muslims got a fair slice of territory, he declared he was going to Geneva to negotiate, and would accept a solution 'which offers an end to all this killing and suffering'.

In central Bosnia yesterday Croats admitted they lost the key town of Bugojno to the Muslims after a week of fighting, sparking a fresh flight of Croats from the region to Croatia. The Muslims have recently pushed closer towards Vitez and Novi Travnik.

The Muslims are on the march throughout the region, overrunning Croat villages and tightening the noose around the last remaining Croat towns in Kiseljak and Busovaca. Some Muslim commanders confidently predict they will grab the whole of central Bosnia within days, and open a land link from Muslim- held parts of Mostar in south-west Bosnia to Zenica in central Bosnia.

At the Geneva talks, Mr Izetbegovic will weigh these triumphs against the desire of most people in Sarajevo for peace, before he chooses between cutting a deal or carrying on fighting. If the Muslims continue the war, they are likely to seize more towns in central Bosnia. The problem is that they may lose the capital in the meantime.

The eerie silence from the Serbs on the hills above Sarajevo last night almost certainly marked a breathing space in, and not an end to their offensive.

(Photograph omitted)