Serb shells strike out a family's hope for peace: Emma Daly in Zenica saw the bloody result of attempts to ensure the Muslim-Croat ceasefire fails

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The Independent Online
SASHA MILINKOVIC became an orphan on Saturday afternoon, his parents the victims of two artillery shells almost certainly fired by Bosnian Serb troops on the Vlaska mountain, west of the Muslim- held town of Zenica. Sasha, 7, was in the garden that day with his parents, Milos and Klementina Milinkovic, his aunt, Irena Brankalioni, and his grandfather, Zvonimir Brankalioni, when two 130mm shells landed in the driveway, next to the vegetable patch.

'We were all sitting in the garden when the first shell came down,' said Mr Brankalioni, an elderly man, small and withered further by the loss of his two daughters. 'I started to scream: 'I've lost my children, I've lost my children.' I grabbed my grandson and put him in the cellar and I came back out to help one of my daughters. She looked as though she was still breathing. Then the second shell came down and it was all over.'

Mr Brankalioni is now in hospital, with shrapnel wounds in his right foot and thigh; Sasha still does not know his parents are dead. Yesterday, standing in the driveway near the gate, still stained with blood, he asked when they were coming home. Close by, the neighbour's children dug through the artillery craters and found a piece of shrapnel - a sign that, despite the ceasefire agreement between the Bosnian army (BiH) and the Croatian Defence Council (HVO), there is still much to fight for in central Bosnia. This is especially true for the Serbs, who have nothing to gain from the peace deal, and might lose much from a united Muslim-Croat front.

Zenica sits at the edge of a complicated jigsaw of competing armies. To the south it is relatively simple: a straight fight between the HVO and the BiH, who are now making peace. To the west sit the Bosnian Serbs. And to the north, HVO troops are mingled with Serbs besieging the BiH-held Maglaj pocket. Last month's political deal between Muslims and Croats has left the HVO with a dangerous dilemma: how to change partners half way through the dance.

Colonel Ivo Lozancic, HVO commander in Zepce, is not a happy man. 'The ceasefire between Muslims and Croats has been fully respected. The lines are quiet,' he said. But the HVO are getting their supplies across Serb territory 'so if the corridor to the south is not normalised, we will be in a very difficult position'.

Having made a Faustian pact, the HVO must turn its back on the devil if it is to ensure the success of the ceasefire deal and the planned Bosnian federation. So far, the Serbs have not been playing along. 'The (Serb) attacks on Maglaj, Tesanj and Usora (all within the Maglaj pocket) are constant, and they risk pulling down the ceasefire,' Colonel Lozancic said. He thinks that is the Serbs' aim.

His assessment is shared by UN sources in the area. The Light Dragoons, who have set up camp near Zepce, were shelled twice last week, and their commanding officer, Major Paddy Darling, is 'fairly certain' the mortars were fired by Serbs. They have been warned that if it happens again, 'we will locate the firing position and destroy it'. Given the Serb presence, 'I think this will be one of the most complicated areas to make the (Croat- Muslim) agreement stick,' Major Darling said.

The mechanics of the ceasefire deal allow both HVO and BiH troops to keep guns trained on the Serbs; and while the UN in Zepce hopes to have a calming effect on the area, Major Darling pointed out that the Serbs 'can shell any town they want to keep it all boiling over'.

At the moment, all roads lead to the Maglaj pocket. The Serbs are attacking the town - yesterday they were reported to have sent a plane to bomb the bridge linking east and west Maglaj. The HVO, which holds a section of the front line around Maglaj, is rumoured to have joined the Serbian offensive on the city until ordered to pull back following the ceasefire deal. The Muslims want to relieve Maglaj - through HVO lines, according to Colonel Lozancic. And the UN wants to feed Maglaj, and if possible to end the siege.

Larry Hollingworth, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the area, has in vain sought the Serbs' permission to take a convoy into Maglaj, but was hoping that a meeting yesterday between the UN and the Bosnian Serb leadership in Pale would produce a result. 'If they (the UN) don't raise the subject of Maglaj very soon, then Maglaj will fall,' Mr Hollingworth said.

The UN is proceeding cautiously in the area, fearful of risking the ceasefire further south or of provoking Serbian attempts to sabotage the deal.

At the very least the UN has managed to reduce tensions between the Muslim and Croatian forces. At a new UN checkpoint south of Zepce, an HVO policeman, Ivica, and his BiH counterpart, Fikret, stood in the shadow of a British Scimitar, discussing life before the war, when they both worked at the steelworks in Zenica. They looked sheepish, amazed to be chatting in what was no man's land, and waiting for a bottle of slivovitz to toast the new alliance. 'We will drink to better relations and to stopping the killing,' said Ivica at lunchtime on Saturday. Two hours later, Sasha Milinkovic's parents lay dead. (Photograph and map omitted)