Serbs aim last blow at Muslim stronghold

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The Independent Online
ABOUT 70,000 Muslims in the eastern Bosnian town of Gorazde prepared yesterday for a final assault by Serbian forces, which have besieged the town since April when the civil war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Gorazde is the last large town holding out against the Serbs in eastern Bosnia, and United Nations efforts have failed to get food and medicine through to the trapped residents.

The Muslim-led Bosnian presidency said that three people had been killed and 16 wounded in Gorazde on Sunday as fighting raged throughout the day.

The Serbian drive to capture the town appears to have gathered pace as pressure has mounted on Western governments to intervene in the Bosnian war. Serbian commanders say that Muslim forces in Gorazde are holding up to 2,500 Serbs in a 'concentration camp', and that they are determined to take the town and free the prisoners.

The Muslims fear that Britain, France and other European governments are looking for excuses not to use military force in Bosnia. They say they are less interested in humanitarian aid - even though shortages of food, consumer goods and medicines are acute - than in receiving weapons with which they can launch a counter- offensive to win back lost territory. 'Most painful of all is that civilised Europe is ready to invent so many excuses not to do anything,' the Bosnian Foreign Minister, Haris Silajdzic, said.

The Serbs claim that up to 6,000 of their people have died in Muslim and Croatian camps, and another 17,000 Serbs are still being held. Both figures are contested by their enemies and are not independently verifiable. The Muslims and Croats say that the Serbs have set up 105 camps in Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro where about 130,000 people are held. They say up to 17,000 Muslims and Croats have died in captivity. These claims also have not been independently confirmed.

However, Western reporters who have visited Serbian camps since last Saturday, say that many inmates are wearing filthy clothes and look ill-fed or even skeletal. Some Muslim prisoners, talking out of earshot of their Serbian guards, say they have been given only one meal a day, of beans and bread, and sparing amounts of drinking water despite the intense summer heat. Large numbers of civilians are being held captive, they say, despite Serbian assertions that most male prisoners are former fighters for the Muslim cause.

At the Omarska camp in northern Bosnia, where the television pictures that shocked international opinion were taken, Serbian guards say that there are three groups of prisoners. These are Muslims who were officers in the former Yugoslav army, men who were captured while fighting for the Muslim-led Bosnian government forces, and men who threw away their weapons and surrendered.

Some of the Serbian camps are now empty, partly because the Bosnian Serbian authorities began removing prisoners last week, after the world expressed outrage at conditions at the detention sites. The UN Human Rights Commission is to meet in Geneva on Thursday to consider the allegations of atrocities in the camps.

(Photograph omitted)