Fleeing Croats accuse UN of indifference: Bosnian Muslims capture Vares in surprise attack, forcing exodus of 8,000 in terror

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THOUSANDS of Croatian refugees fleeing a surprise Muslim assault on Vares in central Bosnia last night described scenes of panic in the town and accused UN peace-keepers of indifference.

About 8,000 Croats drove in cars and lorries, and in some cases walked, some 40 miles across the mountains to the nearest Bosnian Serb checkpoint at Brgole, where after several hours of waiting, they were granted sanctuary by the Bosnian Serb authorities.

Local Catholic clergy led the flight of terrified Croats from encircling Muslim forces. 'After our defence lines broke on Sunday there was complete panic outside the town hall, where thousands of people were trying to get out before the Muslims arrived,' said Father Mato Topic.

'Thousands of people were running around not knowing where to go. There was a lot of screaming - it was like a stampede. They ran to the church seeking help from the clergy but we could not tell them anything.'

Fr Topic said the mass exodus started at 2am when police cars with loudhailers drove through the streets ordering civilians to get out immediately. Three priests volunteered to stay with the people who could not escape from the town, while two trekked over the hills to safety in Serb-held territory with the rest of the population.

'We were all ready to stay with the people and be sacrificed as we priests have no families to worry about,' he said. 'We know that the Muslims will enact a terrible revenge for Stupni Do.' (The village near Vares was the site of a massacre of at least 25 Muslims by Croat soldiers last week.)

One tearful old man said he did not know what had happened to his wife and children in the chaotic exodus. 'My wife would not leave the house without the children,' he said.

'The Muslims attacked us on all sides, from Tuzla in the north and from Zenica to the west,' said Branko Bozic, a 59-year-old pensioner. 'We had been expecting it every day. There were intense battles in the last 10 days which got closer and closer.'

The refugees said they were embittered by the behaviour of UN peace-keepers from the Nordic battalion based near the town, who they said did nothing to calm the situation or help transport Croats from the town. 'They were on the side of the Muslims from the start. They blamed us for the killings of Muslims at Stupni Do but said nothing about the Croat villages burnt one by one by the Muslims.'

'Central Bosnia will remain entirely without Croats if this goes on,' another man said. He said Croats fear the advancing Muslims will shortly turn their attention to the few remaining Croat-held strongholds in central Bosnia in Vitez, Busovaca and Novi Travnik. These towns are already encircled by Muslims, and there is little chance that the outnumbered Bosnian Croat forces can relieve the siege.

They said they feared being left without anywhere to live now that Croatia was full up with refugees from the Serb-held Krajina region in Croatia and earlier waves of Croat and Muslim refugees from Bosnia. 'We are paying the price for the way the world has supported ethnic cleansing in Bosnia,' one said.

LONDON - Peace talks between Croatia's authorities and Serbian rebels broke down yesterday, setting the stage for fresh armed confrontation between the two sides, writes Tony Barber.

The negotiations at a Norwegian mountain hotel foundered on Croatia's insistence that the Serbs recognise Croatian sovereignty over them, and on the Serbs' insistence that their breakaway region of Krajina is independent.