Serbs near 'ethnic cleansing' goal

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The Independent Online
YUGOSLAV air force commanders used to boast that the Bihac military airbase on the Bosnian-Croatian border was one of the most sophisticated in Europe. It had four hangars concealed in the mountains, five runways and an array of hi-tech equipment.

On 16 May the 75,000 people of Bihac woke up to the sound of tremendous explosions 10 miles away. It was the Yugoslav air force blowing up the base of which it was so proud.

They destroyed it partly because they had received orders to pull out of Bosnia-Herzegovina and they did not want Bosnia's Muslim-Croat government to take control of the base. But there was another reason. All the hangars and three of the runways were on the Croatian side of the border, in a region taken over by Serbs last year and renamed 'The Serbian Republic of Krajina'. The air force commanders, though mostly Serbs, had rarely seen eye to eye with the Krajina leadership, and so they blew up the airbase rather than let it fall into their rivals' hands.

The withdrawal of the air force from Bihac did not remove the threat to the Muslim population of the town. For the previous seven months, Bihac had been under a Serbian blockade that severed the town's links with Croatia to the north and west and the rest of Bosnia to the south and east. That blockade has steadily turned into a stranglehold that seems certain to choke to death the last main Muslim-controlled town in northern Bosnia. Since 12 June it has been reinforced by daily artillery, mortar and tank fire to which the lightly armed Muslim forces are powerless to respond.

Mensur Sabulic, the Bihac hospital director, said: 'This kind of animal aggression should be stopped. The destruction of innocent lives should be stopped. We need something to protect ourselves.'

He said the few Western visitors who slipped through the blockade always asked what humanitarian aid the hospital needed. 'It is the wrong question. What we need is a normal life. We are exposed to shelling from just 5km (3 miles) away. We cannot fight back because we have no artillery. So it is not aid that we want from the civilised world. But my personal opinion is that the outside world isn't listening to us.'

The Muslims of Sanski Most, a town east of Bihac, would agree. Local Serbian authorities have terrorised them into giving up their property and abandoning their homes. Even if the Muslims sign oaths of loyalty, they are not safe.

Peter Kessler, who works at the Zagreb office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that Serbs drive around Muslim neighbourhoods at night firing weapons. Mosques have been destroyed, houses burnt, and some Muslims are forced to fly white flags above their homes. 'It is like the Jews in Nazi Germany having to wear the Star of David,' he said.

The expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Muslims from their towns and villages is the defining feature of the Serbian war campaign in Bosnia. It is an attempt to change irrevocably the ethnic make-up of the republic, so that the Serbs can control a 'pure' ethnic Serbian region stretching from Serbia in the east, through eastern and northern Bosnia to Krajina in the west.

Serbian forces have almost achieved their goal. The Muslims are still holding on to Sarajevo and the eastern town of Gorazde, but north of Bihac and towns and villages above the river Una are all they have left. The Serbs have every intention of forcing Bihac to capitulate.

Major Helge Ringdal, a Norwegian who leads a UN observer mission in Bihac, said that it was not only former Yugoslav army units who were shelling the town. 'There are also Serbs who used to work as teachers in Bihac. We know, because recently they contacted us to ask if the UN could arrange for them to get their monthly salaries. Imagine that - teachers shelling the town they taught in,' he said.

Leading article, page 12

Robert Fisk, page 23