UN and Serbs in deal to pull out Muslims

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The Independent Online
THE United Nations yesterday announced an agreement with Bosnian Serb military leaders to save the lives of thousands of Muslim refugees trapped near the fallen enclave of Cerska in eastern Bosnia.

The agreement was announced after the commander of UN peace-keepers in Bosnia, General Philippe Morillon, and a British UN official, Larry Hollingworth, travelled to Cerska from Sarajevo to investigate at first hand reports that several thousand Muslim refugees were hiding from the Serbs in woods and caves.

A senior UN official in Belgrade said Bosnian Serb forces were allowing the UN into the region because their recent military offensive had now achieved its goal. 'The Serbs got what they wanted so they are less concerned now about letting us in,' he said. Thirty UN trucks on standby at the Serbian-held border town of Zvornik are expected to go to Cerska today.

Under the agreement Muslim refugees trapped in the village of Konjevic Polje, near Cerska, will be given 48 hours during this weekend to flee to the Bosnian- controlled city of Tuzla along two corridors which will be patrolled by UN peace-keepers.

The agreement ends a four-day stalemate between the UN and Bosnian Serbs over the fate of several thousand Muslims from Cerska who have taken refuge in snow-bound hills and in caves and woods after Bosnian Serbs seized and torched the enclave earlier this week.

Eleven UN lorries idled for several days on standby at the border town of Loznica waiting for Bosnian Serb permission to reach Cerska and evacuate the wounded. Bosnian Serbs refused to let the lorries in.

Even if the UN rescue plan succeeds, Cerska's refugees are not being offered lasting sanctuary. Tuzla is shelled most days by Serbs. Although the biggest problem is that Bosnian Serb army chiefs do not want the UN in Cerska, another hurdle is that no one knows where the refugees from Cerska are sheltering. 'We suppose they are hiding in the woods and caves in and around Konjevic Polje,' said a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgrade.

Nightly US airdrops of food and medicine are bringing some succour and hope to these desperate people. US planes made a fifth air drop over the besieged Muslim village of Zepa in eastern Bosnia. The Americans, stung by charges that the food is not landing in the Muslim enclaves where people need it most, are considering lowering the altitude for air drops.

Lowering the altitude could heighten the risk of Serbs or Muslim fighters shooting at the planes.

Russian and US military experts agreed yesterday that Russian military planes could begin air drops into Bosnia from next Friday using Nato air bases. Russia will drop 260 tons of aid into Bosnia over two weeks.

At the peace negotiations in New York, mediators struggled last night to wrap up an accord, but sources said the talks were not encouraging.

'Signs are not very good,' a source said after a meeting between Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen and the Bosnian Foreign Minister, Haris Silajdzic. Still, the mediators were making what may be their final push with Bosnia's President Alija Izetbegovic. They were trying to get him to agree to a map that would divide Bosnia into 10 provinces, carved along ethnic and geographic lines.

Mr Izetbegovic had been expected to sign the map by last night, but the Bosnian Foreign Minister evaded commitment to the map. One UN official said: '(The talks) may break down today, without any clear way to revive them.'

Bosnia's UN ambassador, Muhammed Sacirbey, said his government had some 'strong concerns' about the map. 'We want to be sure that these provinces do not become ethnic enclaves,' Mr Sacirbey told reporters. 'I think it's a little bit inappropriate and maybe foolhardy to try to create expectations that cannot be met right now.'