Croatia unable to shelter refugees: As tens of thousands flee Bosnia every day, UN warns of worst such crisis since Second World War

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THE Yugoslav refugee crisis worsened yesterday as Croatia, bearing the heaviest refugee burden, said it would begin shipping refugees out of its territory.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described the situation as 'the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War'. Tens of thousands are leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina every day, and the countries they are fleeing to are having huge problems in coping.

Croatia said yesterday it would send 3,000 refugees to Italy. Mate Granic, the Deputy Prime Minister, cited not only the cost of looking after the refugees but also their safety. Twelve people were killed on Wednesday when a stadium housing refugees in Slavonski Brod in Croatia was shelled by Serbian forces, and the town came under Serbian artillery attack again yesterday.

UN refugee workers say that the Bosnian exodus into Slavonski Brod, just across the border from Bosnia, has become 'catastrophic', with thousands arriving every day. The UNHCR said 135,000 non-Serbs are still living in the region of Bosanski Brod, on the other side of the river.

Jean-Claude Concolato, of the UNHCR office in Zagreb, said: 'It is catastrophic. No one can face up to it. If we do not do anything, they (the refugees) will stray all over Europe.'

Red Cross officials are also concerned about the situation in north-eastern Bosnia. There are 320,000 Muslims trapped in the region of Cazin.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday arrived in Zagreb, and the refugee problem was an item on his agenda. Mr Hurd is touring the Yugoslav republics as effective leader of the European Community effort in the former Yugoslavia while Britain holds the EC presidency.

Dimitrij Rupel, Slovenia's Foreign Minister, earlier suggested to Mr Hurd that safe havens should be set up to protect refugees in Bosnia. 'Our proposal is for safe zones to which people in danger could flee,' he said. But Mr Hurd warned that there were too few United Nations troops to set up the zones. 'Safe zones would be a matter for the UN, which is not, I think at the moment, equipped to do that.' Slovenia has taken 70,000 refugees.

The UNHCR's head, Sadako Ogata, yesterday met John Major to get his political support for a conference, to be held on 29 July in Geneva, at which Britain will be represented by Baroness Chalker, the Overseas Development Minister. At the conference, the UNHCR will ask EC countries to open their borders and their cheque books for refugees and sheltering countries.

The Prime Minister and Mrs Ogata discussed the crisis and its causes, including war crimes in Bosnia. Later, Lady Chalker accused Serbian fighters of breaking the Geneva Convention. 'What we hear from our own officials who have just come back is of systematic abuse particularly against the Muslims by the Serbs whereby at night they go and shoot up Muslim homes,' she said. 'This is obviously a war crime under the terms of the Geneva Convention and we give due warning that that is so.'

Diplomatic efforts to stop the fighting have come to nothing, and EC-sponsored peace talks in London yesterday came no nearer to agreement. Bosnia's Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said he had agreed to place Serbian heavy artillery in Bosnia under UN control if Muslim forces did likewise. He had ordered Serbian commanders to stop besieging the Bosnian town of Gorazde.

The Serb leader expressed amazement at the comments by Lady Chalker, saying it was 'inappropriate' to make comments alleging war crimes while the peace talks were going on.

The West has not yet reached the point at which it considers military intervention necessary, though it has deployed ships to monitor UN sanctions. Yesterday the first Nato vessels entered the Adriatric Sea, where they will liaise with Western European Union patrols already in place.

(Photographs omitted)