Extra UN troops line up for Gorazde: Fears of widening conflict with Serbs pose General Rose the dilemma of how to protect other 'safe areas'

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The Independent Online
THE Bosnian Serbs yesterday responded defiantly to the two Nato air attacks in the Gorazde area in the previous two days, threatening to attack more United Nations 'safe areas'. They claimed to have repulsed a 'joint Nato-Muslim assault' and threatened to shoot down Nato aircraft if there were any more attacks.

Sarajevo was again under siege with no UN aid flights and the Bosnian Serbs preventing any traffic entering their territory.

There were serious exchanges between the British UN troops in Maglaj and the Serbs, the British firing 246 rounds in response to various sniping attacks.

The uncertainty over Serb reaction to the Nato air strikes has overshadowed the conclusion of the British forces' most significant achievement in central Bosnia to date: the signature at noon yesterday of a document fixing buffer zones between Croats and Muslims in the centre of the country, concluding what had been a war within the wider war against the Serbs.

The UN military commander in Bosnia, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, faces the most difficult test of his command. He said yesterday the UN was unable to impose peace but that 'what we can do is preserve the 'safe havens' and self defence'.

General Rose is believed to favour moving a substantial UN force into Gorazde as soon as possible, which would have to be made up from UN contingents already in Bosnia - possibly British, Dutch and Danish infantry companies. Extra troops could be in Sarajevo en route for Gorazde as early as tonight.

Such a force would act as a deterrent to the Serbs and justify more concerted air attacks. The UN has so far said its air attacks were launched to protect its own personnel, not as part of the mission to protect the 'safe areas', although the two causes are related. A Ukrainian battalion of 800 troops is due to move into Gorazde but is not here yet and, in the longer term, given the delicacy of the situation, General Rose may favour a battalion of British troops.

On Monday night there were rumours that the Bosnian Serb military commander, General Ratko Mladic, had been moved to another post, in Serbia proper, but these appear to have been false. Yesterday he was with the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, who had refused to meet General Rose, and later failed to rendezvous with the UN special envoy, Yasushi Akashi. Rumours of a power struggle among the Serbs, possibly with the military not taking orders from Mr Karadzic, appear to have been inaccurate.

Nevertheless, there were conflicting statements. General Mladic yesterday said Nato had been helping the Muslims for two years, but, in an extraordinary statement Mr Karadzic - who had accused Nato of taking sides with the Muslims - yesterday said they had bombed Muslims as well as Serbs in Gorazde. It is possible he was trying to construct a Balkan formula to get out of the confrontation with Nato without losing face.

But among the Bosnian Serb military, orders were certainly orders yesterday . At the Ilidza checkpoint east of Kiseljak, the Serbs were polite, even good humoured, but firm. Nobody was going into Sarajevo yesterday.

A column of Danish and Norwegian armoured vehicles which had been stuck at the checkpoint since Sunday looked on. There were half a dozen mines in front of them and behind them, which looked as if they would have been easy to move, but if the troops from the Nordic battalion had started to do so that might have provoked shooting, and the stand-off continued.

These events overshadowed a success story to the south-west. At noon, Brigadier John Reith, the British commander of UN sector south-west, signed the final agreement between the Muslim led Bosnian army (BiH) and the Bosnian Croat HVO, establishing buffer zones round the two Croat pockets in central Bosnia and the old front line between HVO and BiH. Where possible, the zone extends for 2km either side of the old front lines but in places this is impossible and is down to 500 metres or less. The HVO commander General Tihomir Blaskic and BiH commander General Mehmet Alagic signed the agreement. But this triumph has undoubtedly contributed to Serb concern at the strengthening alliance of Croats and Muslims, and perhaps to their determination to strike decisively at the BiH before the alliance hardens further.

(Photograph omitted)