Ceasefire is first casualty as Serbs bombard UN base: Attack meant to drive out French and end hope of 'safe haven' in Sarajevo

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SERBIAN forces staged their most brazen attack on the United Nations peace-keeping operation in Bosnia yesterday, pummelling an important French UN base at Zetra in Sarajevo with tank and mortar rounds.

The bombardment was a blatant violation, without provocation, of a UN-brokered ceasefire which was due to come into force yesterday at 10am, and a snub to the UN peace-keepers. No one was injured in the base, but at least 38 people were killed elsewhere yesterday after the ceasefire was declared.

'It was a deliberate attack,' fumed a French officer, after emerging from his shelter to survey a row of smoking armoured personnel carriers (APC) and trucks which had been reduced to blackened shells in the bombardment. 'The Serbs are trying to drive us out of here because it is a strategic position.' One tank shell had ripped through the thick steel cover of an APC as if it was butter.

UN officials in Sarajevo said both Serbian forces and the Bosnian army had ignored the ceasefire which had been expected to pave the way for peace talks in Geneva tomorrow. Barry Frewer, a UN spokesman, said most of the shooting was coming from Serbian positions, but he added: 'It is not being respected by either side. It is very disappointing.'

UN troops in Zetra counted 68 rounds fired at their base from Poljine, a Serb-controlled hillside above the city. The bombardment lasted more than an hour.

'First they fired small arms to get us to take shelter, and then they opened up,' a soldier said.

The attack posed a severe challenge to the authority of General Francis Briquement, who took over the post of UN commander in Bosnia less than two weeks ago from his charismatic predecessor, General Philippe Morillon. A recent UN resolution authorises air strikes when peace- keepers are attacked, but it was not clear last night whether the UN would take direct action.

The French moved into the base at Zetra only a few days ago, claiming their base at Skenderija was not big enough. But the move clearly angered the Serbs. They fear the French are fanning out around the perimeters of Sarajevo in order to create a 'safe area', fulfilling the UN resolution adopted last month.

All sides in Bosnia's war have taken pot-shots at UN peace-keepers in the 16-month civil war. Spanish forces based near Mostar have come under fire from Bosnian Croats. Two Canadian UN soldiers were wounded in Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia last week.

Zetra was formerly a speed-skating stadium built for the 1984 Winter Olympics games. The UN has since used the cavernous tunnels underneath the stadium to store food parcels and to house Muslim refugees.

The leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, said he would use tomorrow's talks to propose making Sarajevo an 'open city'. In a letter to the international mediators, Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg, Mr Karadzic said Serbs would do their best to enable uninterrupted supplies of food, water, gas and electricity to reach Sarajevo.

(Photograph omitted)