The UN spokesman in Sarajevo, Barry Frewer, said the Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic hadagreed in principle to a UN inspection trip within two days to Cerska, which earlier this week fell to Serb forces, and to opening up a corridor to the area.
But there is disagreement over whether to evacuate all of Cerska's population or just the sick. 'What we are talking about is the evacuation of the wounded,' said Mr Frewer. 'General Mladic's aim appears to be evacuation en masse.'
Under a plan drawn up by UN chiefs, Muslim civilians trapped in three enclaves under Serb seige at Cerska, Srebrenica and Zepa may be given a 24-hour period this weekend to flee from their ruined towns along land corridors monitored by UN peacekeepers.
For two days a convoy of 11 UN trucks has been attempting to get to Cerska's scattered refugees, thousands of whom are reported to be dotted around the snowbound mountains, fleeing through the woods, prey to starvation, disease and Serbian gunfire.
Lacking Bosnian Serb permission to cross the territory under their control the UN trucks have idled at the Serbian border town of Loznica.
At least 11 refugees from Cerska were killed by Bosnian Serb shelling and sniper fire yesterday morning as they cowered in the nearby village of Konjevic Polje, Sarajevo radio reported. 'The inhabitants are fleeing in panic under a barrage of artillery shells,' the radio said.
For a second time on Wednesday night three US planes parachuted food and medical aid to refugees at Konjevic Polje. But the Bosnian Foreign Minister, Haris Silajdzic, commented: 'The same areas designated for humanitarian air drops are being wiped out.'
Bosnian Serb army chiefs at the border town of Zvornik have put forward their own evacuation plan, which does not involve the UN. They want Cerska Muslims to surrender and quit Bosnia under Serb escort.
The uncomfortable dilemma facing the UN is that it will be charged with assisting Serbs in ethnically cleansing eastern Bosnia by evacuating Muslim civilians for them. Lyndall Sachs, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Belgrade, said: 'It has come down to a sharp choice between letting people die of exposure and shelling and of being accused of being complicit to ethnic cleansing. Our mandate is to save people's lives so we have no choice.'
More than 800 refugees from Cerska have trudged through blizzards and Serb gunfire to reach the Bosnian-held city of Tuzla. But hundreds more are reported to have been killed. All this week, thousands of people have been on the move from Cerska to Konjevic Polje, harried by the Serbs.
In New York, the Bosnian peace talks at the United Nations were on the point of collapse last night. In a last-ditch effort to salvage as much as possible from the talks, the peace plan mediators Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen were trying to persuade the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, to sign the map that would divide Bosnia into 10 semi-autonomous provinces. However, hopes that he would do so were fading.
Bosnia's Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said he was willing to accept 70 per cent of the divisions on the Vance-Owen map, and called for UN control of the other 30 per cent, but this was immediately rejected by the mediators who said it left the land gained by the Serbs by force intact. There was no expectation that the Serbs would change their negotiating position.
Last night it seemed inevitable that this round of the talks would break up with little gained. Mr Karadzic made it clear yesterday that the ceasefire agreement signed by Mr Izetbegovic on Wednesday which allowed for UN control of heavy weapons once they had been removed from combat range was not acceptable to the Serbs. 'We will not accept UN control,' Mr Karadzic said.
The prospect now is that the two leaders who have yet to sign the peace plan will leave town with the talks suspended.Reuse content