Serbs claim reconquest of vital Bosnia corridor

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The Independent Online
SERBIAN forces in Bosnia yesterday claimed they had reconquered the strategically vital strip of land across northern Bosnia known as 'the corridor', which links Serbian-held territory in Bosnia and Croatia with Belgrade.

The corridor was closed for two days near the northern border town of Brcko by a fierce land battle between Bosnian and Serbian forces, in which Serbs defied a United Nations ban on flights over Bosnia to carry out air strikes. The Serbian claim was contested by Croatia, which said yesterday that the corridor was still blocked.

While fighting eased in northern Bosnia yesterday, Sylvana Foa, the spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, reported that the 'last stages of 'ethnic cleansing' ' were being undertaken by Serbian military leaders in the north-west of the republic.

Western journalists who reached the town of Kotor Varos, about 20 miles south-east of the Serbian stronghold of Banja Luka, confirmed that all the villages in the region which had been inhabited by Croats and Muslims appeared to have been systematically destroyed and the non-Serb population driven out or killed.

Serbian commanders at Kotor Varos said that their aim was to destroy all remaining resistance from the heavily outgunned Muslim and Croatian forces, who are still hiding out in the forests of this mountainous region.

In the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, tripartite talks under UN auspices on demilitarising the severely bombarded city before the onset of winter appeared to founder when the mainly Muslim Bosnian government delegation announced that it was pulling out. The Bosnian side accused the Serbian forces, who have besieged Sarajevo for six months, of breaking an earlier agreement to let the UN re-connect water and electricity supplies to the city.

However, Bosnian Serb military commanders agreed yesterday to open up a 'gateway' out of Sarajevo, as Croatia and Yugoslavia reached tentative agreement on placing their airports under UN control. Bosnian Serb military leaders were 'ready to examine practical ways' of opening up a gateway allowing 'freedom of movement' out of Sarajevo, said the commander of the UN peace-keeping forces, French General Philippe Morillon.

At the same time, Serbia's hardline nationalist leaders yesterday moved to scupper a plan by the reform-minded Yugoslav federal government, led by Milan Panic, to place relations with Croatia on an even keel. The row followed the announcement of an agreement between the rump Yugoslavia and Croatia to set up a committee to discuss re-establishing road, rail and postal links and the return of refugees.

The Serbian regime, led by Slobodan Milosevic, bitterly opposed the agreement, and Serbian representatives abruptly declared they were boycotting the committee's first meeting in the Croatian capital, Zagreb. Yugoslav and Croatian officials at a separate meeting in Geneva, however, agreed to the stationing of on UN monitors being stationed at Croatian and Yugoslav airports, to ensure that neither side is violating Bosnian air space.

Mr Milosevic appeared to have won a victory against Mr Panic last night, after early results showed less than half of Serbia's 7 million voters had cast their ballots in a weekend referendum on whether to hold early elections. The federal government hoped that more than 50 per cent would vote 'yes', so that early elections could be held this year, and Mr Milosevic ousted from power. If the final results, which are expected today, show that less than half the voters turned out, Mr Milosevic will be constitutionally entitled to stay in office for another three years.

(Photograph omitted)