Croats claim major advances in Bosnia

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CROATIAN forces said yesterday that they had inflicted heavy losses on their Serbian enemies in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina and were close to capturing the strategically important town of Trebinje in the south of the republic. The Croats said that they and their Muslim allies had wiped out an elite Serbian unit that had been engaged in 'ethnic cleansing', or the mass expulsion of non-Serbs from their native towns and villages, in the northern Bosnian region of Bosanska Gradiska.

They also said that Croatian and Muslim commandos had attacked a television transmitter near the Serbian stronghold of Banja Luka on Monday, blacking out Serbian television broadcasts in parts of northern Bosnia. The Croats said they had destroyed large amounts of heavy Serbian weaponry and that the Serbs had acknowledged 160 dead and 230 wounded in battles in northern Bosnia since last weekend.

Although it was impossible to verify the Croatian claims, it appears that the Serbian military campaign has run into trouble in certain parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A Serbian officer was shown on Belgrade television on Sunday complaining that his men had deserted the war front in Trebinje, a town in the far south of Bosnia that the Serbs used as a base for bombarding the Croatian port of Dubrovnik. He warned that the soldiers would be captured and put on trial unless they returned, and he described their actions as treacherous. A Croatian officer in Dubrovnik, asked if the Croats had captured Trebinje, said: 'Not yet. Progress is being made and they have got very close, but there are still Chetniks (Serbs) there.'

The fall of Trebinje would be a triumph for the Croats, partly because it would ease the pressure on Croatia's southern Adriatic coast but also because they would be able to incorporate the town into an autonomous Croatian region that they have set up in south-western Bosnia. This is known as Herzeg-Bosnia and its creation in early July provoked accusations from the Muslims that their nominal Croatian allies were actually colluding with the Serbs in dividing the republic up between them.

The Serbs still control more than 60 per cent of Bosnia and, according to the Zagreb office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, have warned that they will expel 20,000 non- Serbs from the republic in the next few days. The intended victims appear to be the mainly Muslim residents of towns and villages in northern Bosnia whom the Serbs have uprooted from their homes as part of their 'ethnic cleansing'.

Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Zagreb, said the expulsion could be the single largest yet of the Yugoslav civil war. He added that UNHCR officials were seeking an urgent meeting with Serbian authorities today to persuade them to call off the expulsion. It is planned to hold the meeting in Topusko, a town in Serbian-occupied Croatia.

The Belgrade-based news agency, Tanjug, said that Bosnian Serbs had agreed with UN peacekeepers in Sarajevo on Monday to evacuate women and children from the city in convoys that would start leaving today. Serbian forces have trapped more than 300,000 people in the Bosnian capital since April. UN supplies of food and medicines have proved insufficient to meet the city's needs, forcing many people to consider abandoning their homes.

The Sarajevo mayor, Muhamed Kresevljakovic, says the city's only working bakery is about to run out of flour, depriving people of bread, the basic element in their diet during the siege. There are also shortages of water, and the fuel needed to drive the bakery's generators and delivery vehicles.

In an attempt to repair the damage caused to their world image, the Bosnian Serb authorities have said they would close two detention camps where there is strong evidence that Muslim prisoners have been held in shocking conditions. They have named the camps as Omarska and Keraterm, a former ceramics factory in Prijedor in northern Bosnia.

However, the Serbs acted quickly to empty Omarska last week after television pictures of emaciated prisoners there were broadcast around the world. Moreover, when the Independent visited Keraterm on Sunday, a Serbian guard said all prisoners had been moved out several weeks ago. Residents of Prijedor confirmed this and said the prisoners had been transferred to Trnopolje, a well-known transit prison- camp where some Muslims have been forced to sign away their property before being ordered to leave Bosnia altogether.