Serbs begin to pull back from outskirts of Gorazde

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The Independent Online
BOSNIAN Serb forces began withdrawing weapons from the outskirts of Gorazde yesterday, hours after the expiry of the Nato ultimatum, backed by the threat of air strikes, demanding they end their bombardment of the shattered town.

The United Nations said last night that the ceasefire was holding, despite a mortar attack by what it terms a 'rogue element' among the besieging force, and despite a scorched-earth policy that saw the Serbs burning houses as they withdrew. UN helicopters used the calm to evacuate around 100 of 600 seriously wounded people to Sarajevo.

This belated compliance came amid signs that the Serbs - who portrayed the attack on Gorazde as self-defence in the face of 'Muslim provocation' - may be preparing an assault elsewhere in Bosnia. Tanjug, the official Yugoslav news agency and mouthpiece of the government in Belgrade, reported yesterday that Bosnian government forces planned 'new attacks on the 'Serbian Republic' ' (In Bosnia) aimed . . . at cutting apart the territory that connect the eastern and western parts' of the republic. This area is thought to be the Brcko corridor, a narrow strip between the Sava river border with Croatia and government-held territory in northern Bosnia. Widening the corridor is a long-held Serb aim, and talk of Muslim action in the area could be laying the ground for a new Serbian offensive, again in 'self-defence'.

Tanjug blamed Muslims for sniper fire in Gorazde yesterday which it said had injured a Serbian soldier. The UN reported sniping by Serbian forces and continued skirmishing, but emphasised the relative calm in the town. 'Things are looking good; it is a very optimistic situation for us,' said Major Yvone DesJardins. However, the mayor of Gorazde, Ismet Briga, reported continued shelling yesterday afternoon. Under a deal signed with the UN on Saturday, the Serbs were supposed to have withdrawn all forces 3km beyond the town centre by 2.01am yesterday; by midnight tomorrow they must move all heavy weapons out of a 20km exclusion zone around the town or face Nato air raids.

But the UN appears optimistic that air power will not be required around Gorazde. 'As long as the Bosnian Serb army have complied with the Nato ultimatum, they have no fear of air strikes,' said Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, the UN Commander in Bosnia.

The Serbs violated the letter of the deal - which demands free movement of UN staff - by blocking a humanitarian aid convoy bound for Gorazde yesterday. Lyndall Sachs, of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgrade, said 14 Russian trucks carrying 89 tons of flour and food parcels were held up at Dobrun, on the Serbian border, by Bosnian Serb officials who said they needed clearance from their authorities.

Last night the convoy made it into the town - the first aid convoy to reach Gorazde since the Serbian attack began more than three weeks ago. A further 10-truck aid convoy is expected to leave Belgrade today.

The British and French helicopters ferrying the wounded from Gorazde to Sarajevo were forced to fly via Sokolac to undergo Serbian inspection, hampering the evacuation. 'If we have to wait and wait and wait, people will be dying for lack of medical care' said Genevieve Begkoyian of UNHCR.

The UN estimates that more than 700 have been killed and almost 2,000 wounded in the four-week offensive.