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Mladic returns to defend Bosnia stronghold `War criminal' returns to defend Serb town Return of `war criminal' hits peace hopes

General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander, was back in action in Banja Luka yesterday to rally his forces after undergoing an operation to remove kidney stones in Belgrade. The operation at a military hospital used lasers to destroy the stones and was apparently successful, according to Western intelligence sources.

The absence of General Mladic, who has been indicted as a war criminal, had led to speculation that his illness was diplomatic, but the sources said this was not the case and they now expected him to organise a vigorous defence of the Serb stronghold in western Bosnia.

In fact, the Muslim-Croat advance appears to have run out of steam and there are indications the alliance is under strain. On Wednesday night a gun battle broke out in Jajce between troops of the regular Croatian army, who had advanced from the west, and the Bosnian government VII Corps, which had come from the south. Seven people were reported killed.

In a little over a week the Bosnian-Croat alliance has reduced the amount of Bosnian territory controlled by the Serbs from 70 per cent to less than 50 per cent. But intelligence sources said they had now slowed their advance at the end of lengthened and strained lines of communication.

The Croats made one further gain on Wednesday night, capturing the town of Bosanski Novi. Farther south, the Bosnian government V Corps has advanced towards Prijedor, but neither this town nor Sanski Most is believed to have fallen, in spite of Bosnian government claims to have seized them.

To the south of V Corps, there have been two Croatian thrusts, by a force of about 10,000 Croatian regulars and 10,000 Bosnian Croat militia - the HVO. The professional soldiers from Croatia have been used as attack infantry with the HVO providing additional fire support and guarding lines of communication.

The Muslim and Croat forces in the area outnumber the Serbs by about two to one: 40,000 Muslims and Croats against 20,000 Serbs. The Serbs come from I Krajina Corps, which has withdrawn largely intact after the fall of the Krajina, and II Corps, based in Banja Luka. The Serbs can be expected to make a determined defence of the town. Some local officials are opposed to the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, leading to hopes that they may be more amenable to a negotiated peace, but General Mladic's presence in the city may confound those hopes.

Intelligence sources are playing down suggestions that the Yugoslav National Army from Serbia might come to the aid of the Bosnian Serbs if Banja Luka was seriously threatened. Although the Yugoslav army is the most formidable force in the region it has only about 20,000 troops ready to intervene in Bosnia immediately and they would have to pass through a narrow corridor to reach western Bosnia. This would take time and open them to artillery attack in the corridor.

Following the recent rapid Muslim and Croat advance, it now appears that both sides are likely to dig in.

t Banja Luka - A Reuter television crew filmed the bodies of 18 Serbs, including women and children, said by Serb authorities to have been shot by Croat troops earlier this week in their cars as they tried to flee from Bosanski Novi, on the Bosnian-Croatian border, Reuter reports. The crew saw several other bullet-riddled bodies and filmed vehicles peppered with bullet holes.

Serb officials said yesterday that 127,000 people had been made refugees, and appealed to the outside world for 4,000 tons of food, 1,000 blankets and other supplies, including building materials to repair the thousands of damaged, empty homes in northern Bosnia to house refugees.