Serbs threaten to quit talks as fighting rages on

EMMA DALY

Sarajevo

The Bosnian Serb leadership threatened to withdraw from the peace process yesterday as its forces were pushed back in the north-west, where the ceasefire appears to have sunk without trace. Thousands of civilians were said to be fleeing Serb-held Prijedor, which seems in danger of falling to the government following the recent losses of Sanski Most and Mrkonjic Grad.

"If the UN and international community don't do everything to stop the Muslims and Croats ... we will consider very seriously stepping out of the peace process and asking Yugoslavia to do the same," said Nikola Koljevic, a senior Serb official. The Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic urged his forces to recapture Sanski Most and defend Prijedor.

Lieutenant-General Rupert Smith, the UN commander in Bosnia, met Mr Koljevic near Sarajevo yesterday to hear the Serbs' complaints. "The Serbs are pretty upset. They say [the Bosnians] are not playing by the rules," a UN source said.

There are two possible reasons for the fighting. The Bosnians claim it will take time to establish orders to cease fire; the Serbs accuse the Bosnians of attacking Prijedor. The second seems more likely.

Four shells landed in the town yesterday during a visit by Mr Karadzic."The whole world is celebrating peace, but we don't have peace," he was quoted as saying. "America has brokered this ceasefire and it is obliged to stop them."

Serb sources reported panic and the flight of civilians to Banja Luka, where a curfew is in place and the situation is tense. The loss of Sanski Most and Mrkonjic Grad has added to pressure on Banja Luka; the fall of Prijedor would be catastrophic for the Serbs and almost certainly mean the end of the ceasefire.

"The area around Sanski Most is of considerable concern, where deliberate fighting appears to be continuing and our assessment would be that around that area there has not been a ceasefire, purely a continuation of hostilities," said Lieutenant Colonel Chris Vernon, a UN spokesman.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said 40,000 people fled Prijedor yesterday, and that 5,000 had reached Banja Luka. The rest were in Omarska, site of a detention centre where many Muslims were killed by Serbs in 1992.

"The displacement problem [in the Banja Luka area] is gigantic; there is no housing for these people. They are in abominable conditions," Kris Janowski, a UNHCR spokesman, said. "Sarajevo is much more relaxed than Banja Luka. There are cuts in the water supply, the electricity supply and a general fear that the front lines will move again. It's miserable."

The fighting has resulted in a fall in the number of Muslims expelled from the area. "They cannot organise themselves to organise 'ethnic cleansing' when they've got the front line moving," one official said.

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