Izetbegovic visit buoys Maglaj

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PRESIDENT Alija Izetbegovic yesterday visited the embattled Maglaj area, which is threatening to become the next battlefield between Muslim-led Bosnian government forces and the Bosnian Serbs.

Two groups of Serb forces are reported to be massing east of Maglaj, a finger of Muslim-held territory in central Bosnia which extends into Serb-held areas. Mr Izetbegovic's visit to Maglaj was delayed because the Bosnian Serbs started shelling the town.

The President's trip from Sarajevo had three main motives. He is concerned over the outbreak of arson in the Zepce area, where the Croats, now nominally allies of the Muslims, have torched houses to which Muslims are starting to return, now that freedom of movement has been established.

The Maglaj area has been a springboard for Muslim attacks against the Serbs in reprisal for the Serbian attacks on Gorazde. But now the Serbs look as if they are planning another move. To the east lies the stubbornly independent Ozren region, which has declared itself an independent Serbian canton. If the region joins the Muslim- Croat federation, that would be a major success for Mr Izetbegovic. The Bosnian Serbs shelling Maglaj are not from Ozren but come from other parts of Serb-held Bosnia.

Mr Izetbegovic was coming also to honour the defenders of Maglaj, for holding out during the nine- month siege of the town by Croats and Serbs, and which lasted until March this year.

At 11.10 there was a loud explosion close to the British base in the Maglaj school. The radar manned by the Royal Artillery tracked it to an old T-34 tank, just over a mile away, which had fired a round into the town. At 11.20, three sniper rounds cracked over the base from the east, across the river. Since the British arrived, the Serbs have largely limited their actions to sniping. However, they may have known about Mr Izetbegovic's visit.

The Coldstream Guards company that mans the Maglaj base is due to withdraw on Saturday, to be replaced by a squadron of Light Dragoons, until the Royal Anglian Regiment arrives.

Mr Izetbegovic's movements were shrouded in some secrecy. But on the road to Maglaj, there were crowds of children and young people carrying red tulips. This gave a clue that the Bosnian President was expected. Outside the town hall, a large contingent of Bosnian army troops, who had defended Maglaj during its siege, assembled at noon. But they were dismissed when news came through that he was in Tesanj and would not be arriving until the evening.

Maglaj was totally cut off from 24 June 1993 to 20 March this year, supplied only by United States air drops. 'It wasn't enough for all the people but it was a big help for all the people living in the villages,' said Tatjana Milkovic, a former mathematics student in Belgrade. 'At first we used to live underground but you can't live underground all the time.'

Samir, a Bosnian military policeman, was on guard with his Lithuanian-made assault rifle, US canvas jungle warfare boots, and the Bosnian brown beret. Before the war, he was a bass guitarist in a pop group. 'It's a great day for Maglaj,' he said of Mr Izetbegovic's visit. Of the nine-month siege, he said, 'It was hell.'