Muslims defy siege, snow and starvation

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AT LEAST 600 Muslim refugees are sleeping in the open air without adequate clothing in the Serbian-besieged town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, a United Nations official in the town said yesterday. Larry Hollingworth, who works for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said Muslims were continuing to stream into the town from rural settlements that had fallen to the Serbs in recent months.

In a message broadcast from Srebrenica on amateur radio, he described the scenes as 'Dickensian' and said refugees were wandering round the snow-covered town without coats. The town, whose population has swollen to about 60,000 because of the influx of refugees, has been under Serbian siege for 11 months. UN personnel and doctors who have visited the town say that hunger and disease are rife, and that the inhabitants have been reduced to making a crude form of bread from the cores of corn cobs, berries and buds from tree branches.

The commander of UN forces in Bosnia, General Philippe Morillon, spent his sixth successive day in Srebrenica yesterday seeking to persuade Bosnian Serb forces who are blockading the town to allow in a UN aid convoy by road from Serbia. The Bosnian Serb military commander, General Ratko Mladic, appeared on Monday to have given permission for the convoy to go in, but the UN said yesterday that the Bosnian Serbs had thrown up new obstacles.

Chief among these was the refusal of Radovan Karadzic, the civilian leader of the Bosnian Serbs, to let the UN convoy enter Bosnia with a military escort. Local Serbian commanders would not permit the UN personnel to travel through eastern Bosnia with radio communications equipment. As a result, the 23-truck convoy of food and medical supplies remained stuck for the sixth day at Mali Zvornik on the Serbian side of the border. Other UN aid vehicles destined for Sarajevo and Tuzla, the main Muslim stronghold in northern Bosnia, where 100,000 people are holding out, were also stranded at the Serbian-Bosnian frontier.

The Bosnian Serbs are blocking the UN relief efforts mainly because they believe such concerted assistance to the Muslims helps to bolster their military resistance. The Serbs were shaken by a string of Muslim successes late last year and, though they have captured two small Muslim enclaves, Kamenica and Cerska, since early-February they by no means have a stranglehold on the whole of eastern Bosnia.

Though outgunned by Serbian artillery, the Muslims are numerically stronger and have proved adept at guerrilla warfare in the region's mountains and forests. Some Serbs speak privately of incidents in which Serbian soldiers, worn out by a day's fighting that is invariably accompanied by consumption of strong alcohol, have been killed at night by Muslims penetrating behind Serbian lines.

The Bosnian Serbs are also angry that General Morillon, a French commander with an apparent flair for the dramatic gesture, has raised the UN flag at Srebrenica and vowed not to leave until the offensive on the town stops and the Serbs permit air and land corridors to be opened. Mr Karadzic has told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, that wounded Muslims can be evacuated from the town but that any fighters among them must surrender their weapons.

The US Air Force responded yesterday to complaints that its air drops over eastern Bosnia contained inadequate medical supplies by including batches of penicillin in its latest mission to Srebrenica. General Morillon said the supplies were landing in places accessible to the local people.

The Prince of Wales met British soldiers and sailors at the main supply base in the Adriatic port of Split, then flew to the Camp Redoubt logistics base the British have set up near Tomislavgrad in south-east Bosnia.