Fighting mars start of Bosnia ceasefire

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The Independent Online

Defence Correspondent

All was quiet on most of the 600 miles of Bosnian battle front yesterday after three-and-a-half years of fighting. But the ceasefire, which came into force at one minute past midnight, was ignored in Sanski Most, which the Bosnian government's Fifth Corps claimed to have captured on Tuesday, and where serious fighting was still reported last night.

Sanski Most marks the high tide of the Muslim advance towards the key Serb-held city of Banja Luka, and it is not surprising that the struggle has continued, although street fighting is unusual in Bosnia. "There is definitely no ceasefire there," one witness reported after returning to the government-held town of Bihac.

The government in Sarajevo accused the Serbs of making a further push, and President Alija Izetbegovic warned that the continued fighting threatened the ceasefire, saying: "We will have to respond to [the attack] if it does not stop." He added, however, that he was still optimistic peace would be achieved.

A few other ceasefire violations were reported, but the UN considered them insignificant. Although everyone who knows the Bosnian conflict was cautious yesterday, there was optimism that the ceasefire, which had been delayed 48 hours, would hold. "Something tells me this one could last," said the French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette.

Reported violations were mostly in the north-east, around Tuzla and the Posavina corridor, which links the two main Serb-held areas, and around Sarajevo. A UN convoy heading from Sarajevo to the Muslim enclave of Gorazde was halted by mines and had to turn back.

Normally there are about 500 firing incidents a day, with perhaps 300 involving heavy weapons. Yesterday the UN reported fewer than 20. "It's definitely holding," a UN spokesman in Zagreb said. "It's far better than I anticipated, expected, hoped." Lieutenant Colonel Chris Vernon, a UN spokesman in Sarajevo, said it was militarily impossible to halt the fighting entirely after the few hours' notice which local commanders had received.

On Wednesday the over-extended Muslim and Croat forces claimed to have captured Sanski Most and Mrkonjic Grad in a last-minute scramble for bargaining counters, an attack bitterly opposed by war-weary Bosnian Serbs. Mrkonjic Grad was the last objective on the key road which runs along most of the new Bosnian government front line. But exhaustion among the troops, and the feeling that it was no longer worth dying, appeared to reinforce orders from above to stop fighting.

The UN accused the Bosnian Serbs of "the worst kind of ethnic cleansing" in the days before the ceasefire. A spokesman, Joe Sills, said about 6,000 non-Serbs, mostly Muslims, had been forced out of the area around Banja Luka, scene of some of the worst "ethnic cleansing" during the earlier part of the war.

The five nation contact group - the US, Russia, Britain, France and Germany - is due to meet in Moscow next Tuesday. Full peace talks between the warring factions are due to begin in the US around the end of the month, but the Bosnian government warned it would boycott them unless other conditions were met. These included opening up the road to the Gorazde enclave, and opening a road out of Sarajevo.