Troops mass to defend Dubrovnik

BALKAN TURMOIL : CROAT BUILD-UP; US diplomat sounds out Milosevic 8 Zagreb readies for offensive on south coast 8 Serbs deny key Bosnian town fell to Croats

The steep, barren mountains above the medieval port of Dubrovnik were relatively quiet yesterday, save for thunder and sporadic cross-border artillery fire, despite persistent rumours of an imminent Croat Army offensive to push Bosnian Serb guns out of range of the city.

Zagreb has deployed 10,000 troops in the region, according to UN officials, who described the situation as "extremely tense". President Franjo Tudjman said Croatia still wanted to resolve Dubrovnik's plight and recover one remaining Serb-held enclave in Croatia, Eastern Slavonia/Baranja, by negotiations. "We want Eastern Slavonia/Baranja to be re-integrated peacefully. We would like to avoid further casualties and to boost peace efforts," he said.

Asked how long Zagreb would put up with Serb shelling of the Dubrovnik area, he replied: "The answer is similar to that for Eastern Slavonia. We will put up with it until we run out of patience, once all our peace efforts prove futile." He declined to say when that might be: "It depends. If it can't be done peacefully, with help from international factors ... then we will take necessary steps."

The Croat Prime Minister, Nikica Valentic, arrived in Dubrovnik yesterday afternoon but did not speak to reporters. "He just came to see how this part of his proud country is, and how the people are," said the hotel receptionist forced to evict a reporter to make room for the premier.

Citizens of Dubrovnik, eager for a final assault on their Serb tormentors and a subsequent revival of the lucrative tourist trade, prepared for the expected response to any attack on the Bosnian Serb-held town of Trebinje, boarding up windows and sending relatives to the nearby islands.

The only strangers wandering the narrow, flag-stoned side streets and drinking outside cafes seemed to be soldiers from Zagreb, foreign TV crews searching disconsolately for signs of imminent war, and a lone Czech backpacker who had already been interviewed by the BBC.

Dozens of journalists have descended on Dubrovnik in search of the final chapter to the story that began with the Serb assault on the city in 1991; all the signs are that the Croat Army will roll into Bosnia, but the action so far has been confined to sporadic shelling of the border area 10km from Dubrovnik.

Croat tanks lined up on a stark grey ridge east of the city lobbed the occasional round across the line to be met in kind; otherwise the landscape seemed sullen and desolate. Heavy rain extinguished the last brush fires ignited by Serb shelling over the past few days, leaving acrid scrubland at the foot of the mountainous moonscape.

At least 90 per cent of the traffic along the coast road consists of Croatian Army vehicles or private cars filled with uniformed reservists. At a check-point close to the border dozens of cars parked along the mountain road testify to the presence in Bosnia of men from Dubrovnik mobilised for the battle. They apparently commute to the barrier and are ferried in buses to the front line.

UN officials in Zagreb said Montenegrin officers had reported more than 1,000 Croat hells hitting the town of Trebinje in the past couple of days, adding that the town - unlike Dubrovnik - was under a general alert.

n Sarajevo (Reuter) - A 13-year-old girl was killed and at least 14 other people were wounded yesterday when a shell landed near a bus, the Bosnian health ministry said.

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