Saving Sarajevo: Ceasefire fails to halt battle for high ground: Military leaders may be close to peace agreement, but their troops continue the fight for control of besieged city

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The Independent Online
CEASEFIRE negotiations between the military commanders of the three warring factions in Bosnia yesterday failed to stop Bosnian Serb forces stepping up their attack on Zuc hill, one of the last Bosnian Muslim-held hills guarding the approaches to Sarajevo.

The Bosnian Muslim commander, Rasim Delic, and his Serb and Croat counterparts, Ratko Mladic and Milivoj Petkovic, obeyed orders from their political leaders, who are attending peace talks in Geneva, and went to the United Nations-controlled airport at Butmir in Sarajevo, to discuss a truce.

The mediators Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg, who chair the talks, hoped a truce on the ground will ease the path to all three sides accepting a new peace plan. This proposes to divide Bosnia into loose confederal arrangement of three states called 'The United Republics of Bosnia'. Bosnian Muslims have regularly cited continuing Serb offensive as their reason for boycotting talks with Bosnian Serb and Croat enemies.

The UN spokesman in Sarajevo, Commander Barry Frewer, said that the airport meeting 'will ensure a cessation of hostilities and put in place a regime where the UN can station monitors'. A working ceasefire would be 'a start to making Sarajevo a safe area', he said. If the three military leaders heed their political bosses, meetings will take place at Butmir every day during the Geneva talks.

But as the commanders assembled in Butmir, the dull thump of Serb artillery shells pounding Bosnian Muslim positions on Zuc hill echoed around Sarajevo. The pace of the Serb attack was unrelenting with shells exploding every seven or eight seconds. UN observers in the city counted about 500 Serbs shells hitting Zuc on Thursday, but they normally underestimate.

There are strong doubts that the latest agreement will be any more effective than countless earlier truces. This is a politically arranged ceasefire from Geneva, with little bearing on the military situation on Bosnia's battlefield.

The grim determination behind the Serb offensive against Zuc hill bears the hallmarks of a campaign directed personally by Mr Mladic. The battle has continued day and night for a week. So far, the Bosnian Muslim forces have managed to hold their ground, but they have suffered huge casualties.

The Bosnian army is not letting any foreign observers watch the fight on Zuc hill or on Mount Igman, where the Serb forces are pressing hard from the west. But soldiers returning from the battle have said that the hillside at Zuc is littered with the bodies of at least 300 of their comrades killed in the Serb onslaught. The fighting is so intense that the Muslims cannot even recover their comrades' bodies for burial.

The popular young commander of the Muslim forces on Zuc hill, Enver Sehovic, was killed this week. His death is a severe loss for the demoralised Bosnian army. He was buried yesterday in the courtyard of the mosque in Alipasinpolje suburb.

Battles have a momentum all of their own and there is little chance that the Serbs will call off the offensive against Sarajevo for the sake of a note from Geneva.

They are fighting for high stakes - Zuc hill and Mount Igman guard the northern and western approaches to the besieged city.

If the Serbs take either piece of high ground their dream of crowning a succesful 16-month war against the Muslim-led government by grabbing the Bosnian capital will be a lot closer to reality.

(Graphic omitted)