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Serbs set to capture key town

SERBIAN forces were poised for a crucial victory in the Bosnian war yesterday as they fought their way into Gorazde, the last Muslim stronghold in eastern Bosnia- Herzegovina. The town is inhabited by almost 100,000 Muslims, including 30,000 refugees from a Serbian 'ethnic cleansing' operation, which involves driving non-Serbs from their homes and creating purely Serbian regions.

Sarajevo Radio, the voice of Bosnia's Muslim-led government, said the Serbian forces were advancing with tanks, armoured vehicles, multiple rocket-launchers and heavy machine-guns. Bosnia's chief of staff, Sefer Halilovic, went on the radio to appeal to his units to rush to the town's defence. Kemal Muftic, an adviser to the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, appealed to the UN Security Council to 'meet urgently to stop the massacre' of the population of the town. The Bosnian Serb news agency said the Serbs had taken control of all strategic points around Gorazde, which is 40 miles south of Sarajevo, and had entered the outskirts of the town.

The Serbs launched their assault on Gorazde less than a week after capturing the strategically important town of Derventa in northern Bosnia. The Serbian objective is to link occupied areas of northern and eastern Bosnia with Serbia proper and with Croatian territory conquered last year.

Croatian forces have meanwhile established control over a wide stretch of south-western Herzegovina, which borders Croatia, and proclaimed an independent state there centred on the town of Mostar. The Serbs and Croats have therefore succeeded in taking control of about 90 per cent of Bosnia's territory. The Muslims - who are the republic's largest ethnic group, with 44 per cent of the population, but are the weakest in military terms - have been left with almost nothing.

Both Serbian and Croatian forces have stepped up their war efforts since Western countries began to threaten intervention in the conflict. In the event that they are obliged to lay down their guns, they want to have achieved as many of their war goals as possible. For their part, the Muslims are thoroughly dissatisfied with the limited nature of the Western involvement so far and are adamant that nothing short of direct military support will save them.

The perils facing Western operations in Bosnia were demonstrated yesterday when a United Nations relief convoy was forced to return to Sarajevo airport after failing to reach Zagreb. The convoy of 32 vehicles, mostly empty and travelling to collect fresh supplies, was carrying 73 Canadian and French soldiers. It snaked back over treacherous, hilly terrain after encountering roadblocks and landmines.

A UN spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said the mission's failure had no implications for the proposal by Western governments that a land corridor should be opened to allow humanitarian supplies to be transported from the Croatian port of Split to Sarajevo. But he added: 'It doesn't look like it is viable to do it from Zagreb.' The French government, among the most eager to see firm action, acceded yesterday to a UN request to delay sending a force of nine combat helicopters to Sarajevo. Colonel Jacques Gratteaux, commander of a helicopter regiment in eastern France, said the UN believed the operation would be too dangerous if it was based at Sarajevo airport. The French had intended to use the helicopters to monitor ceasefire violations and to conduct reconnaissance missions.

LOS ANGELES - Milan Panic, the Serbian-born Californian who has accepted the post of Serbian prime minister, is being sued by US authorities for defaulting on a dollars 8.4m ( pounds 4.4m) loan he assumed when he bought a motel in 1985, the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday, Reuter reports.