New threat to peace plan

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The likelihood of Bosnian Serbs accepting a UN-sponsored peace plan weakened further yesterday after Croatia's Serbs decided to unite their local assembly with the self-styled Serbian parliament in Bosnia as a first step towards creating a Greater Serbia.

The 207 representatives meeting in in Okucani, 66 miles east of Zagreb, voted to approve the proposal to create the Union of Parliaments that was put forward by Nikola Koljevic, a close associate of the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic.

To wild applause, Mr Koljevic said the inaugural session of the joint Serbian assemblies in Croatia and Bosnia would be held on Saturday. He did not say where. 'There is not a force in the world which can force you into the Croatian state or us into the Bosnian state if we walk hand in hand,' he said.

Meanwhile, fighting between Muslims and Croats continued in central Bosnia yesterday, with up to 200 people killed in the past five days around Vitez, 50 miles (80km) north-west of Sarajevo.

UN sources said yesterday that Bosnian Croat and Muslim gunmen had killed families in their homes, gang- raped women and expelled civilians under threat of death in brutal clashes in central Bosnia. UN relief workers had found bodies of victims and had seen homes looted in the Vitez, Zenica and Travnik areas, the focus of the heaviest fighting between Croats and Muslims since the civil war began.

The UN sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Croat soldiers had gang-raped Muslim women in Vitez. Unidentified gunmen had killed entire families in their homes with shots to the head at point-blank range. A spokesman for British troops based near Vitez said gangs of soldiers from both sides had gone on the rampage through each other's villages near Vitez at the weekend. British soldiers discovered a group of 10 men, women and one child shot dead in a field near the village of Ahmici.

The fate of Srebrenica still hangs in the balance. The Serbs have given the UN force in the town until tomorrow to complete disarming the Bosnian Muslims and pull out. They have warned they will renew bombardment of the refugee-packed town if the UN forces stay. The UN is negotiating with the Serbs for an extension of their stay in Srebrenica, in an attempt to create a de facto UN protected zone around the town, which is still home to at least 30,000 civilians, mostly refugees.

Thus far there is little sign of the Muslim fighters handing in their weapons. The UN Canadian troops have set up weapons collection points in town, and a few small firearms have been handed in. But even the badly armed Muslims have more arms than that. They are holding back. Understandably, they fear the Serbs will massacre them as soon as they surrender their arms and the UN forces leave. That has been their previous experience.

The obvious solution is for the UN to establish a permanent presence in Srebrenica, and to disarm the local fighters step by step after making it clear they are not going to leave 30,000 civilians to the mercy of the Serbs. But that means fending off the Serbs, who clearly want to take the town, and so far the UN has shown little stomach for a confrontation with General Ratko Mladic, the hardline Bosnian Serb commander.

The UN evacuated nearly 500 seriously wounded people from Srebrenica by helicopter in a two-day operation that was completed on Monday, the UN refugee spokesman in Sarajevo, Peter Kessler, said yesterday.

In Washington, President Bill Clinton yesterday came under pressure from his own party to authorise military action in Bosnia as the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said US policy was at a turning-point. Senator Joseph Biden, a Democrat, said the US and its allies had not done 'a damned thing' to help Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. He urged US air strikes against Serbian artillery positions around the town.