'Muscular' plan to end Serb siege

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THE United Nations plans to lift the nine-month Serbian siege of Maglaj in central Bosnia, preferably with Serb consent, but using a 'more muscular' approach if necessary, UN officials said yesterday.

For the 14th time since the end of January the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was refused permission to deliver food and medical supplies to an estimated 109,000 people trapped in the Maglaj pocket by the Bosnian Serb leadership in Pale. Maglaj is held by Bosnian government forces (BiH). 'Maglaj is extremely important and is rising on the list of things we need to do urgently,' General Sir Michael Rose, the UN commander in Bosnia, said yesterday. 'At some point we may try to run in an Unprofor convoy (with a military escort) which is of course much more robust.'

But first the UN is trying to negotiate its way into the pocket and out of a situation described by a UN source as 'a running sore'. General Rose this week asked Vitaly Churkin, the Russian envoy to the former Yugoslavia, to raise the issue of Maglaj with Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, in the hope of creating another 'Sarajevo solution'.

The Bosnian Serbs are said to be worried that the BiH will seize the opportunity given by an aid convoy to break the siege; a solution along the lines of the agreement in the capital would freeze the front line and end the shelling. But if the Serbs do not agree to this plan, the UN is ready to send a convoy protected by armoured vehicles, invoking the UN's right to freedom of movement.

According to two teams of UN liaison officers who flew into Maglaj by helicopter on Sunday Maglaj is not starving - people have received food air dropped by US planes - but is suffering from a severe shortage of medicines and fuel and is undergoing heavy bombardment.

The UNHCR is concerned not only that the town should be fed, but also that without a lifeline to the outside world, it might fall into enemy hands, prompting a new wave of refugees in the area.

In Zagreb the Croatian government and leaders of the Serbian community in the break- away Krajina region are to hold talks on formally ending the war which has been raging there since 1991.

Talks will take place at the Russian embassy in Zagreb next Tuesday, another indication that Washington and Moscow are pushing hard for an overall peace deal.

BRUSSELS - Nato expressed concern over the UN's slow response in authorising an air strike against Serbian guns in Bosnia last weekend and expressed fears it could put the lives of UN peace-keepers at risk, Reuter reports.

The Nato Secretary-General, Manfred Worner, told a meeting of ambassadors from the 16 alliance nations that he would write to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali on the issue, alliance sources said.