Retreating Serbians keep tight grip on besieged Gorazde

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The Independent Online
THE Bosnian Serbs yesterday withdrew troops and weapons from around the besieged town of Gorazde, as around 200 soldiers sent to reinforce the United Nations garrison there, began to patrol the confrontation lines.

A senior UN official said the UN peace-keeping force in Gorazde was short of troops, but confirmed Serbs had withdrawn heavy weapons outside a two-mile radius of the town. The UN head of civil affairs in former Yugoslavia, Sergio Vieiera de Mello, said monitoring the pull-out had improved with the arrival of a second batch of UN troops.

The town was quiet, apart from occasional sniper fire, as UN aid workers began to distribute food and organise the medical evacuation of about 91 people who were wounded during the three-week Serbian offensive. The Bosnian Serbs must complete their withdrawal of all heavy weapons from a 20-km (12-mile) exclusion zone around the town by midnight tonight, or face the wrath of Nato's warplanes. The UN special envoy, Yasushi Akashi, said he was fairly confident the Serbs would comply with the ultimatum.

Although Nato and the UN have achieved their aim of putting a stop to the bombardment of Gorazde, the Bosnian Serbs need not feel aggrieved, according to analysts in Belgrade. 'I think the Bosnian Serbs are laughing,' said Aleksander Vasovic, military correspondent for the independent Belgrade radio station B92.

Apart from escaping Nato's retribution, for missing the first deadline to stop firing, they have neutralised the strategic value of Gorazde. An important road runs through the town. Gorazde also contains a munitions factory which is important to the Bosnian army (BiH). The Serbs are in a stronger position than before their offensive. Now the UN has placed a buffer force between the two armies, preventing Muslim attacks from within the enclave, the Serbs are free to move their men elsewhere.

Mr Vasovic, like Lieutenant- General Sir Michael Rose, commander of UN forces in Bosnia, was confident the Serbs would pull their weapons out of the Gorazde zone. 'They will withdraw. They just cannot afford the devastating bombing that would occur if they do not.' But, he added, 'they will cheat . . . it's spring, there are a lot of leaves and they know about camouflage. They will leave something.'

If they do, the Serbs are taking a big risk. Nato, smarting over the UN's refusal to allow air strikes last Saturday, is seeking total compliance. 'If the Serbs do not comply, there will be no leeway given,' an alliance source said. Even if the Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic, complies with Nato, his men (who will remain 3km from the town) will be able to consolidate their gains.

The Serbs are already building a by-pass around Gorazde, to connect Serb-held areas in western Bosnia to Serbia proper. Yesterday Tanjug, the offical Yugoslav news agency, reported that 'several hundred' Bosnian Serb refugees are returning to villages in the newly-conquered lands around the town to build 'a new life (in the) burnt- down ruins of their homes'. Therefore, officials were preparing to set up 'police stations and other bodies of authority' in the area.

The news from Tanjug is at odds with UN reports that Serbian troops have burnt down houses in the area to prevent the return of Muslims. Observers in Belgrade believe the Tanjug report suggests the Bosnian Serbs are moving swiftly to build on its gains in the enclave.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Belgrade knows nothing of Serbian resettlement around Gorazde, according to its spokeswoman, Lyndall Sachs. She said they had kept 'a very close eye' on a Serbian village of 40 to 45 people within the Muslim enclave, and had found 'absolutely no evidence of discrimination' against them by Bosnian forces.

In Gorazde itself, UNHCR staff have been busy distributing the food parcels and flour - the first humanitarian aid to reach the town since 22 March - and seeking candidates for the medical evacuation to Sarajevo, which began last Sunday and is likely to continue for several days. Because of shelling around the hospital, many of the wounded returned home after treatment, Ms Sachs said. 'Now we are trying to find the patients, who are scattered around the city,' she said. The Government has agreed to treat 50 of the wounded in Britain.

The UN is angry that helicopters ferrying the injured are forced to land at Sokolac in eastern Bosnia for inspections by Serbs, endangering the lives of patients. It is angry that a second food convoy, which left Belgrade this morning, has been turned back at the Serbian border by Bosnian Serbs. It will try to reach Gorazde today.