Serb push puts Bihac at risk

Balkan conflict: Thinly-stretched Bosnian government forces flee as Mladic's men seize back land they lost last month

The Bosnian Serb army has seized back territory captured last month by the mainly Muslim Bosnian government Fifth Corps in a counter-attack that has brought Serb artillery perilously close to the town of Bihac. Near Sanski Most, Bosnian soldiers were forced to run for their lives amid a hail of anti-aircraft fire and air attacks.

The Serbs have also pushed to within six miles of Bosanska Krupa, where refugees have already returned to homes occupied by the Serbs for three years, and shelled the outskirts of the town on Sunday, prompting concern among international observers that Bihac, 18 miles to the south, is at risk. "If they move south, then they can start shelling Bihac again, which they will do at the first opportunity," one said.

Although the UN yesterday reported that Krupa had been placed on red alert, the observers said it was calm yesterday morning, with no signs of panic among the returning civilian population. However, helicopters were seen moving in and out of Bihac, probably ferrying wounded from the front lines.

Fifth Corps soldiers, acting in concert with the Croatian Army pushing from the south, seized thousands of square miles of territory around a main road linking Bihac to central Bosnia via the town of Jajce, and moved within artillery range of the Serbs' northern stronghold, Banja Luka. But in the past few days, Serb forces have begun to retaliate, capitalising on the exhaustion of the thinly stretched Bosnian soldiers.

On Sunday, a brigade moving west towards Sanski Most through a narrow finger of land sticking into Serb territory came under heavy fire from three sides, and was almost cut off as Galeb jets bombed their positions. One witness said the brigade was exhausted even before the planned Bosnian attack.

"Then the Serbs launched a counter-attack, so the troops who were to attack were tied up in that, and the soldiers just panicked," he said, adding that he and the others ran for their lives through a wave of explosive bullets. "The Serbs had 150 Muslim forced labourers digging trenches on the front line the government forces were supposed to attack, which did not improve their morale."

However, the observer did not assess the defeat as catastrophic, adding that although the Bosnian forces lost the finger of land, their lines seemed to be holding firm at the base. "I don't think the Bosnian Serbs can capitalise as much as they should," said another military expert. "I don't think there is any real problem [for Fifth Corps] at the moment."

The Fifth Corps might now decide that their chances of taking Sanski Most before the winter are slim, and could concentrate instead on holding the line around Bosanska Krupa and pushing on the Serb-held town of Mrkonjic Grad.

This is the last remaining obstacle on the road south-east from Bihac to central Bosnia: capture of the road would bring huge benefits to the Bosnian government, which would have a firm link with Bihac and a much shorter supply route from Croatia to central Bosnia.

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