Weapons supply bolsters Serbs in Bosnia: Belgrade flaunts contempt for international threats to bomb forces blocking aid routes

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FILING across rickety railway bridges and past UN military observers, Belgrade's army is on the march.

A convoy of eight military lorries, each clearly marked as belonging to the Yugoslav army, was parked at the roadside on Friday along the Belgrade-Zagreb highway about 20km (13 miles) north-west of the Serbian capital. It was accompanied by an escort of police and soldiers from the 'Krajina Serb Republic army', the force of the rebel Serbs controlling about 30 per cent of neighbouring Croatia. Each army truck was towing a freshly painted 105mm cannon. No effort was made to conceal the origin of the equipment or its destination. On Saturday, UN monitors reported the arrival in occupied Croatia of two convoys of eight trucks each with guns in tow.

Earlier last week, 10 tanks, again with markings of the army of rump Yugoslavia, comprising Serbia and Montenegro, pulled out of a Belgrade railway station for an 'unknown destination' - somewhere in Bosnia Herzegovina.

This apparently new flow of weapons to shore up Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia refutes contentions by the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, that Serbia is not involved in any of the neighbouring wars. It also undermines Mr Milosevic's demands to the international community to lift the sanctions imposed against Belgrade 19 months ago for Serbia's role in the Bosnian war. UN officials see the latest arms transfers as Serbia flaunting its contempt for threats to bomb the Serbs for blocking aid to Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia.

And it is not just tanks and guns that are making their way to the front line. Serbian soldiers from the 63rd Airborne Brigade, a special forces unit of the Yugoslav army, are the toast of Bijeljina and elsewhere in north-eastern Bosnia where they have been based recently. According to Serbian military sources in Bijeljina, the Yugoslav troops are now leading an offensive against Olovo, a town north of Sarajevo on the main road connecting Tuzla with the Bosnian capital and the city of Zenica. The presence of a Yugoslav paratroop unit around Olovo has been confirmed by UN sources.

According to the sources, the Yugoslav paratroops - sporadically involved in the fighting in Bosnia for the past year - are now the spearhead of a Serbian plan to isolate Tuzla, a UN-declared 'safe area' of almost 400,000 people. A Serbian siege of Tuzla now would not only be a devastating blow to the mainly-Muslim Bosnian government but could be viewed as a direct challenge to the resolve of the international community and Nato.

On Saturday, Sarajevo Radio reported that more than 2,000 Serbian shells landed last week in and around Olovo, which even before the latest onslaught has been reduced to a rubble-heap. The attack on Olovo has been co-ordinated with an offensive against Teocak, a strategic mountain village north-east of Tuzla.

The aim of the current drive against Olovo, the Bosnian Serbs say, is to punish the Muslims before tomorrow's round of Geneva peace talks on a three-way carve-up of the country. 'The Serbs have decided to take Olovo and Teocak. It is a prelude to laying siege to Tuzla if the Muslims don't agree to a peace deal in Geneva,' one Bosnian military source said.

The Bosnian government, however, buoyed up by a string of military successes against Croatian forces in central and south-western Bosnia, shows no signs of willingness to accept the latest peace plan, which would give Muslims 33.6 per cent of the territory of the country. At the weekend, the Bosnian Vice-President, Ejup Ganic, said the Geneva talks would be a 'useless charade' unless the Serbs returned towns tht had a pre-war Muslim majority.

The likelihood of the Serbs returning any more than the approximate 20 per cent they have already offered to give back is remote at best. The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, told the Washington Post on Saturday that not only was handing more land over to the Muslims unlikely, but his generals were digging in for more war. 'Only Serbian military successes make them (the Muslims) talk,' Mr Karadzic said, adding that maybe what the Muslims needed to agree to a peace deal were not carrots but 'some stick'.

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