Croats and Muslims Advance; Thousands More Refugees on the Move
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Government and Croat soldiers captured two important towns Wednesday from Serb rebels, advancing rapidly in central and western Bosnia as the rebel forces retreated and as many as 40,000 Serb civilians fled.
Gen. Mehmed Alagic, commander of the Bosnian army’s 7th Corps, told Bosnian government television that the town of Donji Vakuf, about 55 miles northwest of Sarajevo, had fallen to government forces.
``Units of the 7th Corps are right now entering Donji Vakuf,″ he said. ``Donji Vakuf is ours.″
More importantly, Croatian television in Zagreb reported that the strategic town of Jajce, another 15 miles to the north, had fallen.
It broadcast footage showing a Croatian flag flying from the fortress of Jajce, with Croat militia around and the town in the background. Television also showed Croat tanks moving on the road below the town of Jajce.
Wednesday’s advances meant four Serb-held towns have fallen to combined Bosnian army-Croat forces over the last two days: Sipovo, Drvar, Jajce and Donji Vakuf.
A fifth, Bosanski Petrovac, is endangered. The Bosnian Army’s 5th Corps is perched on its northwestern outskirts and the Croats moving up from the south.
If the Croats and the Bosnian government forces link up, they would unite a long swath of territory along Bosnia’s border with Croatia and easy access to Bihac from Sarajevo.
Croat forces had been pressing toward Jajce from the west, and the capture of Donji Vakuf set up a pincer movement on Jajce. The Croatian news agency HINA reported earlier that Jajce had been captured.
In addition to its economic and strategic importance, Jajce has strong psychological significance. Its capture would put the allied forces in position to harass the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka, farther north.
It also is the site of important hydroelectric plants.
Psychologically, the capture of Jajce is most important for the Bosnian government. Thousands of refugees fled the area when Bosnian forces lost it in an October 1992 battle. Jajce also is the site of the declaration of a new Yugoslavia by Communist partisans in 1943.
``We had to leave Jajce three years ago, after we were defending it for several months,″ Ivo Simunovic, the local Croat militia commander, said from Jajce. ``I am more than happy now to return back home, and I call on all people from Jajce to come back here.″
In a statement released late Wednesday, the Bosnian Serb army’s military information service denied a part of its territory had been occupied.
``This disinformation is part of a media campaign for destabilization of certain parts of the (Serb) republic, particularly in the western part of its territory,″ it said.
At the United Nations, the Security Council called for an end to ``all offensive military activities and hostile acts″ in Bosnia. The statement stressed that ``there can be no military solution to the conflict.″
Government forces also reported advances against the Serbs north of Sarajevo in the region of Mount Ozren, about 45 miles from the capital.
U.N. and Bosnian army officials reported light Serb resistance. U.N. spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Vernon said it could amount to a tactical withdrawal in keeping with Serb expectations from the peace negotiations.
Refugees were on the move to escape the troop advances. Spokeswoman Alemka Lisinski of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Zagreb, Croatia, quoted Bosnian Serb sources as saying the entire civilian population of Donji Vakuf, Jajce, and nearby Sipovo and Mrkonjic Grad _ a total of about 40,000 people _ were fleeing or being evacuated.
About 5,000 more Serbs were reported to be fleeing the Bosnian army advance on Ozren.
If the refugee reports prove correct, ``we could be facing another huge humanitarian crisis,″ Lisinski said. Huge population shifts took place this summer across Bosnia and neighboring Croatia.
In July, Serbs overran two government enclaves in eastern Bosnia, Srebrenica and Zepa, sending tens of thousands of people fleeing. Last month, Croats recaptured Serb-held territory in their republic, and more than 100,000 Serbs fled.
In Washington, meanwhile, Defense Secretary William Perry said he found no evidence of any civilian casualties in more than 100 NATO bombings since Aug. 30. The Russian government has accused NATO of killing Serb civilians, including children.
The advance by Croat and Muslim-led government troops came as U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke began a new round of shuttle diplomacy to settle on a plan to divide Bosnia’s territory.
Holbrooke was likely to tackle the difficult issue in meetings with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who has negotiating power for the Bosnian Serbs. U.S. negotiators were carrying large maps as they entered the talks in Belgrade, the Serbian capital.
Last Friday, all three sides in the Bosnian conflict agreed on a plan under which the Serbs, who now hold about two-thirds of Bosnia, would have to give up large pieces of it. They would end up with 49 percent, leaving the rest for a Croat-Muslim federation.
Serbs, backed increasingly by Russian rhetoric, are complaining that the NATO campaign is unfair and must be stopped. The airstrikes started on Aug. 30, two days after a mortar shell landed near a Sarajevo market and killed 38 people.
The Serbs have refused to pull back heavy weapons from around Sarajevo, the chief demand of the United Nations and NATO, claiming it would leave their forces surrounding the capital vulnerable to government attack.
Associated Press photographer Sava Radovanovic reported seeing a NATO jet fire four rockets at Serb infantry positions on the front lines near Lukavica, a Serb-held suburb of Sarajevo. NATO sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said storage areas for Serb armor and ammunition, not infantry, had been targeted in that attack. Initial reports indicated the targets were hit, the source said.
Bosnian TV reported more strikes Wednesday evening in the same area. It also showed amateur video of a huge plume of black smoke near the town of Doboj, north of Ozren.
U.N. spokeswoman Maj. Myriam Sochacki confirmed airstrikes Wednesday near Sarajevo. NATO spokesmen said an ammunition dump was attacked early Wednesday, but could not give the location. A second bombing mission was scratched due to bad weather.