Serbs retreat in face of Gorazde deadline: Muslims return to destroyed homes despite sniping as UN insists on total compliance with ultimatum

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UNITED Nations officials said yesterday that Bosnian Serb forces had removed heavy weapons from positions identified by UN observers within the 20km (12-mile) exclusion zone around the Muslim town of Gorazde.

The UN officials declined to say if all Serb heavy guns had been pulled out of the exclusion zone, but made clear this removed the threat of Nato air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs. 'All the sites within the 20km exclusion zone where Bosnian Serb army heavy weapons were previously located have been reported by UN military observers as being clear,' a UN spokesman said last night.

Earlier, the Bosnian Serb army said it had completed the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the exclusion zone more than 12 hours before the expiry of the UN deadline backed by the threat of Nato air strikes. 'Units of the Bosnian Serb army have withdrawn 3km from the centre of Gorazde and heavy artillery to 20km from the town,' said a statement from the Serbian military. 'We will comply with the conditions and our behaviour cannot be a cause for fulfilling the threats,' added Aleksander Buha, the Bosnian Serb Foreign Minister.

The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said reconnaissance planes would fly over the area to check the Serbs' weapons movements. 'It probably will be not until tomorrow (Wednesday) when there can be reconnaissance flights, overhead photography, before we determine if there has been practical compliance with the deadline.'

The UN, which until now has granted the Bosnian Serbs considerable leeway in meeting its demands, had said that this deadline - 2.01am today local time - was 'watertight', according to a spokesman. 'We expect complete compliance,' he said. 'If only one weapon is left, that is a clear violation.' Nato had wanted to bomb last Saturday, when the Serbs were still shelling Gorazde.

The Western powers and Russia, keen to salvage a peace process mired in the Gorazde crisis, yesterday said that a newly agreed 'contact group' would visit Bosnia for urgent talks with the three sides. 'Having got Gorazde, we hope, at least free of shelling, we must make a big push on the diplomatic side,' said a British official in London, where the new group - diplomats from the US, Russia, Britain, Germany and France - met yesterday.

Mr Christopher, who is to meet Mr Kozyrev in Geneva, said the group wanted 'to make sure the diplomatic process was a determined and well-organised one'. The group will report to Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg, the EU and UN negotiators on former Yugoslavia. 'Events in Gorazde can be a turning point in the Bosnian conflict,' Mr Stoltenberg said.

In Gorazde yesterday, hundreds of Muslim refugees chased out by the three-week Serbian onslaught took advantage of the Serbian infantry withdrawal to return to what is left of their homes, in spite of sniping in the town. Many houses that survived the fighting have been razed by the Bosnian Serb army, apparently to prevent Muslim resettlement. Yasushi Akashi, the UN special envoy, telephoned Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, to protest against this scorched- earth policy. He complained about the deliberate destruction by the Serbs of a water-treatment plant in Gorazde and about the failure of Mr Karadzic's troops to allow the International Red Cross to take sanitation equipment to Gorazde. The lack of water is 'one very great problem facing everyone at the moment' said a UN official, adding that the threat of disease was a 'potential danger' in the town.

As a shaky ceasefire in Gorazde held for a third day, the UN continued its medical evacuation. British and French helicopters have flown 189 people to Sarajevo for treatment, and 10 were yesterday flown to Britain. Around 400 more of the 2,000 people wounded in the Serbian offensive are expected to leave the besieged Muslim enclave.

BRUSSELS - The out-going European Commission President, Jacques Delors, said he felt ashamed about the European Union's failure to stop the bloodshed in Bosnia, Reuter reports. 'I think I will carry the shame to the end of my career,' he said.

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