Thousands of Serbs flee as towns fall

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Thousands of refugees were said to be fleeing towards the Serb- held town of Banja Luka yesterday to escape new advances by the Bosnian government army and its nominal ally, Croatia.

UN sources said up to 50,000 refugees were on the move, which would be the largest single displacement of Serbs in the Bosnian war.

Croat forces claimed they had captured the key central Bosnian town of Jajce as well as Drvar and Sipovo, the Croatian news agency Hina reported. The Bosnian army refused to confirm reports that it had taken Donji Vakuf, which it has besieged for weeks. Sarajevo television also reported a Bosnian army offensive from Bihac against Serb-held Bosanski Petrovac, north of Drvar.

The capture of Jajce would be a tremendous boost to both Croat and Bosnian forces; it was the last big town to fall to the rebel Serbs in October 1992, and its loss prompted accusations of Bosnian Croat betrayal. For the Serbs it would be a serious blow, as Jajce houses a power plant which supplies electricity to Banja Luka.

UN sources say the Croat claim is plausible, as their forces were reported on Tuesday to be only 10 miles from Jajce. The Bosnian forces attacking from the south are said to be waiting outside Donji Vakuf while mine-clearing units deal withbooby-traps.

If the allied forces secure Jajce, they would be within striking distance of Banja Luka, the jewel in the Serbs' crown.Many Bosnian soldiers fighting in the area are highly motivated, as they were expelled brutally by the Serbs from the Banja Luka region. Serb authorities reported a big exodus from the area, including from Mrkonjic Grad, which is less than 30 miles from Banja Luka. Between 45,000 and 50,000 people "are being evacuated, or fleeing, towards Banja Luka", said a Serb report sent to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The roads south of Banja Luka are said to be blocked, with the first refugees already seeking help from the UNHCR office in the city.

"It's not actually [co-ordinated], the two are working separately," Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnian Prime Minister, said of the offensive. He refused to comment further on the operation, or on Zagreb's goals in western Bosnia, where Croatia is clearly hoping to build a buffer zone. "At the end of the campaign season the politicians get going and the military has to give them a good bargaining position," said a UN official.

With the Serbs under attack from Nato, although not in western Bosnia, the Bosnian army has also pressed on with an offensive near Tuzla, gaining control of an important route near Mount Ozren.

But UN officials do not believe air raids against the Serbs have significantly altered the battle-field balance yet, though clearly they do not help General Ratko Mladic's forces. The source said Nato attacks had not struck at "tanks, artillery or manpower", and that disruptions in the supply line could be restored in two weeks.

Ammunition and fuel flowed unchecked from Serbia, at least until the past month, UN officials said, and supplies are likely to resume when air raids stop. But the psychological pressure from air strikes is sapping morale, and those who have contact with Serb authorities believe they are seeking a way out of the fight with Nato.

This has not induced Gen Mladic to withdraw his heavy weapons from around Sarajevo or open roads into the city. Officials of the UNHCR yesterday delivered 4,000 meals, 10 tons of flour and three tons of canned meat to the newest refugees in Banja Luka, but expect to truck only 200 tons of aid into Sarajevo this week.

The UN and Nato have suppressed the heavy guns around Sarajevo by retaliating against artillery positions that fire into the city, but have not lifted the siege. Mr Silajdzic expressed concern at reports that Nato might suspend air strikes and cut a deal allowing Gen Mladic to retain some weapons around the city: "I'm afraid if they stop in the midst that it will have a very negative effect." And he dismissed Russian complaints about Nato's campaign: "Those who destroyed Chechnya the way they did should not be able to impress anyone in the West, so far as the air raids."

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