Serb attack on bridge raises fears of new Croatian war: Bosnian Croats fleeing from Muslim attacks are creating a potential flashpoint

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The Independent Online
SERBIAN forces in the Krajina region of south-west Croatia yesterday shelled a strategic bridge and an airport, raising fears of a new Serb-Croat war in the republic. About 25 shells landed near the bridge, but failed to destroy it.

The Serbs bombarded Zemunik airport near Zadar and the bridge at Maslenica, which is the only road link between northern and southern Croatia, after accusing Croats of reneging on a deal to hand over the two complexes to United Nations peace-keepers.

More than 3,000 Bosnian Croat refugees reached sanctuary in the ethnic Croat strongholds of Ljubuski and Tomislavgrad in south-west Bosnia, where UN refugee workers provided food and blankets. But this is only the start of the exodus. Between 2,000 and 7,000 more Croats are still trekking southwards out of the central Bosnian mountains towards the Croatian coast, according to a UN refugee spokesman in Sarajevo. The Croats are fleeing Bugojno, in central Bosnia. The town fell in a brief battle last week to resurgent Muslims, who are now rapidly overrunning Croat strongholds in the region, in a move to link up a large swath of Muslim-held territory from Mostar in the south-west to Tuzla in the north-east of Bosnia.

Several hundred Croat refugees pushed on to the Croatian port of Split, where UN refugee workers are concerned their presence may spark off violent clashes with thousands of Muslim refugees in camps near the city. The Croat refugees staged an angry protest, demanding food and accommodation. There are fears that if thousands of Croat refugees pour into the city, they could touch off anti-Muslim riots.

The UN aid agency is already worried by unconfirmed reports that the Croat authorities have started rounding up Muslim refugees in camps near Split and dumping them over the border in Bosnia against their will. One report concerned a busload of Muslims reportedly driven from Imotski in Croatia over the border into Bosnia at the weekend. Croatia claimed those expelled were petty crooks, foreign nationals and people with no identity papers. They denied launching a clampdown on bona fide refugees.

Over 250,000 Bosnian refugees have sought refuge in Croatia in the last year and a half and Croatia's impoverished government has had to foot most of the bill. The country is still recovering from a ruinous independence war with Serbs and the loss of a quarter of its territory.

Many of the refugees are Muslim victims of Serb 'ethnic-cleansing' campaigns in northern and eastern Bosnia and at first were welcomed. When fighting broke out between Croats and Muslims in central Bosnia, where Croats have come off worst, relations deteriorated. In parts of Croatia, the tension between Muslim refugees and the host community has reached boiling point.

In the Bosnian village of Doljani, sacked by Muslim soldiers last week, a Reuters television cameraman saw and filmed the mutilated bodies of four Croats with eyes gouged out and sex organs cut off. The village is near the town of Jablanica, an area of intense fighting for months. Croat military officers said the bodies were among 22 Croats massacred by Muslims.

The Bosnian Serbs claimed yesterday to have captured the strategic Mount Bjelasnica, which overlooks besieged Sarajevo, after several days of fighting, the Belgrade-based Tanjug news agency reported.

It quoted Bosnian Serb army sources as saying Serb forces now controlled the Bosnian television relay station on the summit. However, Bosnian television carried on its evening programme uninterrupted, casting doubt over the Serb claim to control its relay links.