Winter of trench warfare looms: Muslims and Croats deadlocked in valley

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The Independent Online
VITEZ - Muslim and Croat forces battling for control of the Lasva river valley in central Bosnia will remain deadlocked through a winter of trench warfare, a United Nations commander predicted yesterday.

'The Croats have three lines of defence in some places and a spinal road down the valley along which they can move their troops,' explained Lieutenant-Colonel Alastair Duncan, whose British soldiers serve as UN peace-keepers in the region. 'This enables the Croats to reinforce more quickly than the Muslims can attack while advancing on foot.'

A month ago the mostly Muslim Bosnian army seemed poised to capture the town of Vitez, a Croat stronghold in the Lasva river valley. The Muslims had narrowed the defenders' territory to less than two miles in one place. The Croats dug in, reinforced, and halted the Muslim offensive in a feat that has earned them some admiration among UN observers here. Even while retreating, the outnumbered Croats have managed to punish advancing Bosnian army forces.

'I don't know whether the Muslims lost their nerve because they were taking too many casualties, but their offensive effort in the Lasva valley has run out of steam,' said a British peace-keeper who asked not to be named.

'We see firefights and probes, but none of the big, co-ordinated Muslim troop movements and assaults that marked the beginning of their push in mid-September.'

The Lasva river, flanked by a highway, runs for roughly 19 miles across central Bosnia from Zenica to Travnik, both strongholds of the Muslim-led Bosnian army.

Local officials say about 65,000 Croat residents and refugees are surrounded by Muslim forces in the Lasva valley, most of them in the towns of Vitez, Novi Travnik and Busavaca. Many Bosnian army soldiers battling Croats in the area are refugees from areas captured by rebel Serb forces in the country's three-way civil war.

Among the most hardcore of Bosnian troops, these soldiers have little patience with sporadic peace negotiations carried out by the central government in Sarajevo.

But their local commanders, having tried and failed to take the key Croat-held portions of the Lasva valley by frontal assault last month, now seem willing to let time and winter weather weaken the Croats.

'The Muslims think if they keep the pressure on and the winter is harsh the Croats might be forced to surrender Vitez,' a UN source said. 'That would break the back of Croat defences in the Lasva valley.'