U.N. Warns Serbs of NATO Air Strikes if Bihac Shellings Continue With AM-Yugoslavia-Dead End, Bjt; AM-Croatia-Pope
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ U.N. commanders warned Serbs on Saturday that they risk NATO air strikes if they keep firing on the northwest Bihac area, a once-quiet haven for Muslims.
Shooting in the city of Bihac appeared to subside after the warning was delivered, U.N. officials said. There were conflicting reports of continued fighting elsewhere in the enclave.
The Bihac region, one of six U.N.-designated safe areas in Bosnia, has been shaken by tank, artillery and rocket fire in recent days as Serb fighters and Muslim-led government troops battle for control of the area 140 miles from Sarajevo.
Serbs troops from a Serb-held part of neighboring Croatia have crossed the border to bolster Bosnian Serbs.
″At the moment there are urgent consultations going on to decide what our response may be,″ said Clare Grimes of the U.N. protection force in Sarajevo.
She said possibilities included a imposing a weapons exclusion zone around Bihac.
Though frequently violated, an exclusion zone around Sarajevo has helped spare the city from intense bombardment for seven months.
The U.N. commander for all of former Yugoslavia, Gen. Bertrand de Lapresle, planned to visit Bihac on Saturday to assess the situation.
U.N. military spokesmen in Sarajevo reported heavy fighting on several fronts early Saturday in the Bihac pocket, named for the largest city in the region.
They said Serbs had fired tanks and mortar rounds into the city of Bihac, targeting army and police buildings, and that government forces were firing mortar rounds toward Serb positions.
″Both sides have been approached to stop the fire,″ said Maj. Dacre Holloway, a U.N. spokesman in Sarajevo.
The warning to Serbs was issued by the U.N. commander in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, according to a statement released in Zagreb, Croatia.
Tucked away in northwestern Bosnia, Bihac has been a complex and puzzling sideshow in the 29-month-old war.
Home to as many as 300,000 residents and refugees, the enclave is hemmed in by Bosnian Serb forces on southeast. To the north and west are hostile Serbs on Croatian territory they captured during Croatia’s 1991 war of secession from Yugoslavia.
The pocket was an island of relative calm as a wealthy Muslim entrepreneur, Fikret Abdic, used his business connections with Serbs and Croats to keep supplies instead of shells coming into the area.
But Abdic incurred the wrath of the Sarajevo government last September by declaring autonomy and signing his own peace deal with the Serbs, who then gave his small army artillery support.
Bosnian army troops finally routed Abdic from his last stronghold in August, potentially freeing up government soldiers to reinforce fronts against Serbs in eastern Bosnia.
The current Serb offensive appears intended to keep those forces tied up in Bihac, and to secure territory for a planned supply railway through the area. It also is a show of solidarity between Bosnian Serbs and Serbs in Croatia, who have pledged to unite their territories.
An estimated 200,000 people are dead or missing in Bosnia’s war, which was started by the republic’s minority Serbs when the Muslim-Croat majority declared independence from Yugoslavia.
Bosnian Serbs control 70 percent of the country. They have rejected an international peace plan that would require them to cede about one-third of their holdings. Serbs also hold about one-third of neighboring Croatia.