Serb forces fire at aid drops in 'safe areas'

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The Independent Online
IN THE wake of an overwhelming rejection by Bosnian Serbs of the Vance-Owen peace plan, their forces yesterday stepped up their attacks on UN-protected areas in eastern Bosnia and continued their drive to widen the strategic Posavina corridor in northern Bosnia.

Serbian forces, defying warnings from the United States not to interfere with air-dropped humanitarian aid, opened fire on Muslims trying to collect relief supplies inside a UN-declared 'safe area' in eastern Bosnia, a UN official said yesterday.

'In Srebrenica, air-dropped relief bundles have been landing near the line of confrontation and Serb forces have fired upon some residents as they tried to retrieve them,' said Commander Barry Frewer, spokesman for the UN Protection Force. A UN spokesman yesterday also reported renewed shelling of the Muslim enclave of Zepa from Serbian tanks, shattering a fragile ceasefire.

The general commanding UN forces in Bosnia said he had requested more troops and air support to protect Muslim 'safe areas'. 'It's time for me to have additional men in order to retaliate if we are attacked,' General Philippe Morillon said.

The Posavina corridor linking Serbia and Serbian areas in western Bosnia is strategically vital to the Serbs, who continued a determined effort to expand it to the Majevica mountains. There was also fighting between Muslims and Croats yesterday in the southern Bosnian city of Mostar. UN headquarters said the fighting in Mostar involved small arms and mortars, indicating that the Croats were mopping up the last remnants of Muslim resistance.

Central Bosnia, where Muslim- Croat fighting was expected to flare, was reported as 'tense' last night, although in Gornji Vakuf and Prozor yesterday, where the grim, charred evidence of 'ethnic cleansing' is everywhere to be seen, the atmosphere was remarkably relaxed. It was market day, and people filled the streets.

Equally strategic - and also symbolic - is the town of Medugorje, 12 miles Mostar. There, Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg, who succeeded Cyrus Vance as a mediator, are due to meet the Bosnian Croat leader, Mate Boban, and the presidents of Bosnia and Croatia, Alija Izetbegovic and Franjo Tudjman.

With access to Mostar restricted, Medugorje has been the grandstand from which to view the city's destruction. In 1981 four local men reported seeing the Virgin Mary on a Medugorje hillside. A new church was built and tourists and the faithful flocked to the town. It is now home to the 1,000-strong UN Spanish battalion.

There are still some tourists in Medugorje, not far from the Dalmatian coast, offering a bizarre contrast with the military and diplomatic activity surrounding the meeting.

As the West pondered its next move, the Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic - possibly under the influence of slivovic, the powerful local plum brandy - threatened to attack Britain in the case of Western military intervention against his forces in Bosnia. 'If they bombard me, I'll bombard London, there are Serbs in London and in Washington too,' he thundered. 'If they come here they will leave their bones here.' Mr Karadzic yesterday disowned the remarks.

Referendum officials in Pale said more than 80 per cent of 900,000 potential Serbian voters in Bosnia turned out for the poll, and that more than 90 per cent voted against acceptance of the peace plan. The final result will be announced in the Bosnian Serb parliament later this week.

In an interview with the BBC, peace mediator Lord Owen called the referendum 'a direct challenge to the international community', but dismissed the result as 'of no great importance'.

In Belgrade, the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, will be testing the seriousness of the claim by President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia to support the peace plan, and his commitment to cut supplies to Serb- held Bosnia. Observers have seen little sign of the promised embargo. Petrol is more available in Serb-held Zvornik, in north-eastern Bosnia, than in Belgrade. Lorries thunder to and fro across the border, which Mr Milosevic vowed to close to everything except humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile in Moscow the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, yesterday rejected any direct Russian military role in the former Yugoslavia. Not a single Russian soldier, he said, 'is being prepared for or will be sent into Yugoslavia. This is my firm decision'.

His comments, apparently in conflict with a Russian pledge to provide border monitors in Bosnia, reflect a continuing debate in Russia between hard-liners and the Foreign Ministry.

Hard-liners regard the Bosnian Serbs as their Orthodox Slav brethren and oppose any actions against them. The Foreign Ministry has supported virtually every joint international action on the former Yugoslavia.