UN urged to declare Brcko tinderbox a 'safe area'

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AMID reports of men and materiel moving towards Brcko, in the narrow Serb-held corridor running through northern Bosnia, the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, has called for the town to be declared a 'safe area', protected by Nato and the UN. There should be 'an air strike in response to the first Serbian shell', he said.

Concern is growing among UN officials that the corridor could be the next battleground between Bosnian Serb and government forces, with fighting spilling over to neighbouring towns, including the Serb-held Doboj and Tuzla, a UN 'safe area' held by the government.

'I personally favour extending the protection that exists for the safe areas to this extremely sensitive zone (around Brcko),' Mr Juppe said yesterday. His remarks drew an angry response from the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, who accused the international community of 'inflating' recent events in northern Bosnia - including a tank battle between his soldiers and the UN, prompted by a Serbian artillery assault on troops from the UN's Nordic battalion on Friday night. 'I am warning international factions that we will not accept any change in the status of Brcko,' he said yesterday.

Brcko sits across the Sava River from the border with Croatia; Serbian forces hold it and the surrounding land. South of the corridor, Bosnian government forces are in control. The corridor links Serbian gains in eastern Bosnia with their northern stronghold, Banja Luka, and with the 'Serbian Republic of Krajina', land held by rebellious Serbs in Croatia. Both sides have a powerful incentive for an offensive in the region: the Bosnian Serbs to widen the corridor, the Bosnian government to cut it.

Both sides have accused each other of massing troops and equipment in the area. Yesterday Sarajevo Radio accused the Serbs of gathering 'the strongest concentration of combat potential since the beginning of the war', and said a woman had been killed by a Serbian artillery attack on Tuzla. Tanjug, the Yugoslav news agency, said four people had been killed by Bosnian shells in Doboj.

The worst scenario would come into play if regular Croatian troops across the Sava backed their nominal allies in the Bosnian government with artillery in a battle with the Bosnian Serbs. This would almost certainly bring the Krajina Serbs into the Bosnian war, shattering the fragile truce in Croatia and destroying any hopes of a swift diplomatic solution.

Mr Juppe warned yesterday that without a speedy settlement, Bosnia faced a 'solution of despair' - the lifting of the arms embargo and withdrawal of UN peacekeepers - and urged his colleagues in the US, Russia and the EU to meet within 10 days to consider ways of streamlining the peace process.

Although the rest of Bosnia was relatively quiet yesterday, the deaths of two American journalists near Mostar on Sunday illustrated the dangers that remain, even during a ceasefire. Brian Brinton, a freelance photographer, and Francis Tomasic, an interpreter, were killed when their car hit mines on a minor road. Their companion, William Vollmann, a novelist on a magazine assignment, escaped with minor injuries.