Fierce fighting strains peace flares up again

Bosnia ceasefire: Serb army shells Muslims in north-west as leaders argue over defeats defeat

Fierce fighting between Bosnian government troops and Serb forces flared again in northwest Bosnia on Sunday, both sides reported, putting further strain on a four-day-old ceasefire.

The government's elite 5th Corps said that Serbs shelled their defence lines near Sanski Most "with all available weapons" and Belgrade's Tanjug news agency said that "since early this morning fierce fighting has been in progress on the Sanski battlefront". In Sarajevo the UN spokesman Lt Col Chris Vernon said : "There is still military action, no doubt about it, but it is stable in terms of land movement." As towns fought over were important economically, the fighting was "not just about land gains."

Earlier yesterday, the front lines in northwest Bosnia had appeared quieter after government forces said they had halted an offensive that began last month and gained them thousands of square miles of territory. Victories by the Bosnian army in Sanski Most and Mrkonjic Grad have sown panic among Bosnian Serb leaders, who took the unusual step of inviting UN observers to inspect the front lines. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, reopened old wounds with his military commanders by blaming unnamed generals for the defeats.

UN monitors headed for Mrkonjic Grad last night; their arrival should improve the peace-keepers' ability to monitor the cease-fire and report breaches. Hostility between the warring armies is fiercest in north- west Bosnia, where Serbs earlier killed or expelled thousands of Muslims.

The UN, if it is allowed access on the government side, will want to investigate reports of recent atrocities and older mass graves on territory lost by the Serbs. Bosnian troops took journalists to see 14 bodies, dead for several weeks, at two sites near Sanski Most. They suggested they were Muslims used as slave labour and shot by retreating Serb forces.

Emir Karic, a Sanski Most official, said about 300 men were unaccounted for and feared dead: "The Serbs briefly withdrew from Sanski Most over a month ago but after two days came back to harass the Muslims. They expelled about 2,000 women and children to Zenica and Travnik. They kept about 1,000 men." He added that half of those had been forced to withdraw with the Serbs. "We found 200 alive here and 300 are feared killed. We have already found and identified 100 bodies in various locations."

The ground between Prijedor - still in Serb hands - Sanski Most and Mrkonjic Grad, which once formed a defensive line around the Serb stronghold of Banja Luka, is infamous for atrocities committed against Muslims in 1992.

n Mons, Belgium (Reuter) - Russia and Nato got down to the details yesterday of planning a 60,000-strong force to implement an eventual Bosnia peace settlement. Russia has offered up to 20,000 troops but has insisted that they will not come under direct Nato control.

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