Muslims hit hard as Croats and Serbs unite: Bosnia's 'Maglaj finger' is cut off as Zepce falls to new allies

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THE Bosnian Muslim 'Maglaj finger' has now become the 'Maglaj pocket' after being cut off by the Serbs and the HVO, the Bosnian Croat militia, UN sources confirmed yesterday. The widespread collusion between the Serbs and Croats is no longer concealed. An HVO officer said on Thursday: 'There are three sides. You cannot fight both of them. Therefore you must ally with one.'

The Muslim-led Bosnian army (BiH) remains in control of the tip of the old finger, including Maglaj itself, but the HVO now controls Zepce, on the road south down to Zenica along which refugees and wounded from the fighting wish to pass, and the area south of Maglaj, as far as the high ground level with Zepce.

This presents a natural obstacle and it would be difficult for the HVO to advance over it.

The protagonists are stretched very thin, as in all the fighting in Bosnia. A 'front line' might be a single trench covering a road. Military sources here believe the Serbs and Croats, even jointly, will have a hard job holding the gains made so far.

The BiH believes 30 Serbian vehicles used a pontoon bridge to cross the Bosna river, level with Novi Seher, and it seems that seven Serbian tanks which attacked on Tuesday turned south towards Zepce.

To the south, the long- awaited BiH attack on the Croatian pockets in the Lasva valley, including Vitez, where the British UN battalion is based, failed to materialise. It was thought that the BiH might capitalise on their recent success in the area to draw off Croatian troops from the Maglaj finger where they had suffered a clear and potentially critical reverse. The British closed the roads into and out of Vitez on Thursday night after apparently determined attacks by the BiH to the west and east of the town, but the fighting, fierce at first, subsided after about 90 minutes. The attacks followed the cyclical pattern of much of the fighting. Yesterday morning the routes were reopened and the relief convoys passed through without hindrance.

Yesterday afternoon mortar and small-arms fire continued around the Vitez camp, as it usually does, and a Belgian journalist, Dirk Graulanas, editor of Knack, a weekly news magazine, had a lucky escape when a bullet pierced his car.

Elsewhere in the British area of responsibility, the 'ceasefire' between Serbs, Croats and Muslims seemed to be holding yesterday. A British patrol which I accompanied reached a Croatian checkpoint near Novi Travnik, which seemed relaxed, although they would not let us pass. The patrol circumvented the controls and probed south-west. Later, six miles (10km) south- west of Novi Travnik, we encountered a road block of the BiH 7th brigade - known as hardline Muslims. They were initially suspicious, but when it was explained that a ceasefire cannot be monitored if the parties are given advance warning, and that the patrol was all British, they let the patrol through.

It penetrated almost as far as Bugojno, along the old Serb- HVO front line, but there were no fighting forces to be seen.

The fighting north of Sarajevo came as the besieged capital prepared to mark the first anniversary today of the UN airlifts that have been its lifeline.

Since a British C-130 Hercules transport plane landed on 3 July 1992, flyers from 20 countries have braved bullets, mortar fire and anti-aircraft guns to deliver 45,500 tonnes of supplies. Last September four of them, the crew of an Italian cargo plane hit by a missile as it approached the city, died for their efforts.

The difficulties in supplying the stricken capital were underlined yesterday as a senior UN official said a fuel convoy already robbed by Serbian gunmen on Wednesday was being held up again near Sarajevo by Serbs demanding more fuel.