Muslims order east Bosnia offensive

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BOSNIAN Muslim leaders yesterday ordered a full-scale offensive in eastern Bosnia in an effort to reduce Serbian pressure on Muslim enclaves there that have been under assault since early last month. 'Thousands of women, children and old, wounded and exhausted people' were on the verge of dying, the commander said in a broadcast on Sarajevo radio. He added that the offensive was necessary 'to prevent the massacre of innocents'.

The chief Muslim commander, Sefir Halilovic, ordered all available units to reinforce Muslim fighters around the settlement of Konjevic Polje and to attack the Serb-held town of Vlasenica. Vlasenica lies about 30 miles north of Pale, the Bosnian Serb headquarters outside Sarajevo. It commands the only major land route linking Pale with areas of northern and eastern Bosnia that the Serbs conquered last April and May.

The Serbs captured the Muslim settlement of Kamenica on 13 February and last week drove out the entire Muslim population of the nearby enclave of Cerska. Several thousand refugees have braved snow, hunger and gunfire to cross through the countryside to Srebrenica, a town 30 miles south of Cerska whose population has swollen to 60,000. United Nations military personnel and aid workers say that food and medicines are in such short supply in Srebrenica and that at least 20 people are dying every day.

General Philippe Morillon, the commander of UN forces in Bosnia, said yesterday: 'I am convinced that Srebrenica is the place where the population is at the greatest risk from famine and lack of medicine.'

UN staff in Belgrade are planning to send out 10 truckloads of supplies to Srebrenica by Thursday. General Ratko Mladic, the commander of Bosnian Serb forces, offered to allow women, children and old people to leave Konjevic Polje and Srebrenica but the announcement of the latest Muslim offensive seemed certain to make Serbian opposition to such operations even more intransigent.

Srebrenica has been the main target of US air drops of humanitarian supplies since the fall of Cerska. Six US cargo planes flew over the town in darkness early yesterday and dropped more than 46 tons of military rations and medical supplies.

It was the eighth such operation to date and meant that the US Air Force has dropped a total of 215 tons of aid over eastern Bosnia. All of it has been intended for the Muslim enclaves.

In Brussels yesterday the European Community gave Serbian leaders an ultimatum to sign the UN peace plan for Bosnia within two weeks or face more sanctions. EC foreign ministers said they would step up diplomatic pressure and close loopholes in a trade embargo against Serbia to force it to sign the plan.

And Lord Owen, the EC peace mediator, suggested that the plan could be endorsed by the UN without the signature of Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs.

Talks in New York have been suspended until the end of the week but there is some optimism that encouraging comments by Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia's Muslim President, could signal his endorsement of the proposals. The division of Bosnia into 10 semi-autonomous provinces is the last stumbling- block to acceptance of the package. A constitutional framework and rules for a ceasefire and military disengagement have largely been agreed.

Yesterday's warning increases pressure on Mr Karadzic by suggesting that he is likely to find himself isolated. While making it clear that the plan could not be implemented by force, Lord Owen told EC foreign ministers yesterday: 'Once the plan has the proper endorsement of a world authority, then it will be easier to apply pressure to achieve a total package.'

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said: 'Yes, it is envisaged that the (UN) Security Council might endorse the Owen-Vance peace plan without Karadzic's signature.'

Lord Owen denied that the proposed division of Bosnia rewarded Serbian aggression by ceding territory that once belonged to Muslims.

(Photograph omitted)