Fighting flares as truce nears

Bosnia turmoil: UN peace-keeper dies and ethnic cleansing continues in run-up to ceasefire

The poisonous tide of Bosnia's war reached a high yesterday in advance of a ceasefire which had been due to take effect one minute after midnight last night, with the death of a peace-keeper from Serb artillery, the subsequent despatch of Nato jets to strike at the smoking gun, heavy fighting along front lines and the "ethnic cleansing" of 3,500 Muslims from Serb- held towns.

A Norwegian UN soldier who was hit by shrapnel at the Tuzla air base yesterday afternoon died on the operating table, a UN spokesman said. The base had been shelled sporadically all day, and it was unclear why the soldier was not in a bomb shelter.

Two jets, believed to be US F-16s, dropped at least two laser-guided bombs on a Bosnian Serb military command and control bunker near Tuzla at the UN's request, a Nato spokesman said. Although the pilots could not identify the offending heavy guns threatening peace-keepers, the UN considered the bunker to be linked to the artillery fire. Nato later announced that the bunker had been destroyed in the raid. The two planes returned to base.

More than a dozen civilians were killed and almost 100 wounded in Serb attacks in the Tuzla area on Sunday, and artillery exchanges continued across the line east of the town yesterday, Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Vernon, a UN spokesman, said. The air raids came not as punishment but as protection for peace-keepers.

Fierce fighting continued in north-western Bosnia, where sources said Muslim troops had taken Sanski Most, a town resonant with horror as one of the worst places for murder, torture and ethnic cleansing.

UN refugee officials reported that 3,500 Muslims had been expelled, in ghastly conditions, from the area while the Serbs were in control. Most were women, children and elderly people who had been separated from men of military age. Kris Janowski of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, denouncing the "extremely brutal expulsions", said another 600 people from Sanski Most were expected to reach central Bosnia yesterday.

"They were expelled in an appalling way," Mr Janowski said. They were forced to wade through a river and some people drowned. Others died of exhaustion." Men of military age had been taken away to camps, refugees said, and around 100 killed by paramilitaries who also terrified local Serbs into ostracising the Muslims they had earlier tolerated.

Military successes around Sanski Most, gateway to Prijedor, whose loss would be devastating to the Serbs, may have encouraged the Bosnian government to postpone the ceasefire. It condemned the fatal shelling of a refugee centre near Tuzla on Sunday, but said it should not affect the planned truce. "This is an act of pure terrorism, which proves what the Serbs really are, but this will not influence the ceasefire because conditions for its implementation are set," President Alija Izetbegovic said.

However, with gas and electricity not yet restored to the Bosnian capital, the ceasefire was delayed. Peace-keepers and technicians worked frantically to repair the power lines, but gas engineers stood idle at two plants close to the city, awaiting a green light from the Russian company that supplies Bosnia via Hungary. The Russians are owed more than $100m (pounds 60m) in unpaid bills for gas used in Sarajevo and diverted by the Serbs away from the city. Once the tap is turned in Hungary, gas should reach the suburbs in about 12 hours, according to Tony James of the British Overseas Development Administration, which is running the gas system.

ODA engineers have refurbished a second pipeline, unused since 1992, and upgraded more than 5,000 dangerous and illegal gas connections to houses in Sarajevo.

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