Serbian rout of Bosnian forces

THE Bosnian city of Jajce was reported to be on the brink of falling to Serbian forces yesterday, completing the rout of the Bosnian troops loyal to the government of President Alija Izetbegovic.

The imminent loss of Jajce follows a series of battles between Muslims and Croats in the heart of the republic, which have underlined the Muslims' all-but- hopeless military position.

Bosnian forces on Monday night claimed the Croats had razed the mainly Muslim town of Prozor, west of Sarajevo, expelling more than 3,000 inhabitants, after bombarding the town with more than 1,000 shells. They said Croatian troops fired on Muslims as they fled the town. Muslims lost battles with Croats last week for control over Vitez and Novi Travnik in central Bosnia.

The Croatian news agency, Hina, later reported that the Croatian and Muslim forces had signed an 'immediate and unconditional' ceasefire in Prozor, providing for the return of all those who had fled the town.

The Serbs claim they already control parts of Jajce, whose inhabitants are mostly Muslim and which has held off a siege for five months. Serbian commanders issued an order forbidding soldiers from desecrating the town's wealth of Muslim monuments. They claimed that the city's defenders were retreating towards Travnik, which is controlled by Croats. Bosnian radio said the city could fall 'within hours' and claimed several hundred people had been killed in the fighting.

Bosnian Croats and Muslims were formerly allies against the Serbs, whose overwhelming military superiority posed an equal threat to both communities. Together they outvoted Bosnian Serbs in a referendum in March over independence from Yugoslavia. But the alliance foundered after the outbreak of fighting in April, as their military and political aims diverged.

While the Croats enjoyed an early success in seizing territories they wanted, poorly armed Muslims lost ground everywhere. The military imbalance degraded the Muslim alliance in Croatian eyes. At the same time political differences widened. Muslim leaders champion the idea of Bosnia as a centralised state. The Croats want to run their own region, called 'Herzeg-Bosnia', with minimal reference to Sarajevo.

An informal detente between Croats and Serbs has now replaced the earlier pact with the Muslims. The leaders of these two communities in the southern Herzegovina region yesterday agreed to honour a three-day ceasefire.

The breaking of ties between Croats and Muslims has cut off the only supply route between Muslim-held cities in central Bosnia and the Croatian sea ports. It is a severe blow to President Izetbegovic, who has steadfastly backed a joint front against the Serbs. Mr Izetbegovic and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia hold regular meetings, where they publicly affirm an alliance. In practice, Croatia is backing away from its erstwhile allies in Sarajevo, and supporting the disgruntled Croats of Herzeg-Bosnia.

Mr Izetbegovic's position has been undermined by regular reports of plots to oust him. The reports may be wishful thinking on the part of the Serbian and Croatian leaders, but they have done their job by belittling his stature as President. In December he is due to relinquish his rotating office.

Outflanked on all sides and reduced to small pockets of land in the centre and east of the republic, the Muslims are now more than ever dependent on the efforts of the peace mediators, Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance, to save Bosnia from partition between Serbs and Croats. In Geneva the two mediators on Monday unveiled a fresh plan to halt the war. Under the proposed plan, Bosnia will be divided into several autonomous regions. It looked like a diplomatic move to thwart a Serbian-Croatian carve up. But it may have come too late.

(Photograph and map omitted)