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Serbs Offer Evacuation of Muslims

By Peter Maass
The Washington Post

SARAJEVO, Bosnia

Serb militia commanders offered Thursday to permit U.N. evacuation of thousands of Slavic Muslim civilians trapped by a powerful new Serb offensive in eastern Bosnia that the U.N. Security Council has condemned as "appalling" and fraught with "killings and atrocities."

But the offer has apparently not tempered the ferocity of the week-old Serb attack on the Muslim-held enclave of Cerska, as U.N. aid officials in the region continued to report heavy Serb shelling of civilians and looting of villages.

In recent days, aid officials said that the tank-backed Serb attack has overrun nearly all of 20 villages ringing Cerska, sent thousands fleeing their homes toward the Muslim city of Tuzla and left thousands of others without shelter and exposed to largely indiscriminate shellfire.

Bosnia's Muslim-led government has described the offensive as "intensified ethnic cleansing" -- the Serb terror tactic of expelling all non-Serbs from territory they control -- and U.N. envoy Tadeusz Mazowiecki agreed with that assessment in a letter Thursday to the U.N. Rights Commission in Geneva. "There is little doubt that Serb forces, by their current offensives, are intensifying ethnic cleansing," he wrote. "There are accounts of massacres of civilians, burning of homes and attacks on refugees trying to flee the area."

The Serbs' offer to permit evacuation of the area reversed their stance of the past four days, during which they refused to allow a 12-truck U.N. evacuation convoy into the region until all Muslims in the Cerska enclave surrendered.

U.N. officials said the Serbs expressed a willingness to open "safe corridors" for civilians to leave Cerska and the nearby Muslim-held enclaves of Zepa and Srebrenica -- which U.N. officials say may soon be the targets of new Serb attacks -- and Serb-controlled media reports said Serb commanders had even offered to provide transport for the evacuation, "because they do not want innocent civilians to suffer."

U.N. officials said they have been trying to negotiate a 24-hour cease-fire Saturday so they can assess the situation and care for the wounded. Only after such an assessment, they said, could relief workers determine whether residents there need food or evacuation.

The Serb side in Bosnia's 11-month-old war has made similar offers in the past as their forces overran Muslim or Croat territory, presenting officials with a dilemma: Should they help evacuate civilians and thus assist the Serb ethnic cleansing campaign, or should they refuse and leave the civilians to die?

But since U.N. humanitarian aid forces in Bosnia have been unable to guarantee deliveries of food and medicine to civilians in Serb-besieged areas, many relief officials believe that their only alternative is to get desperate civilians out of harm's way.

In making the evacuation offer, Serb nationalist leaders also objected bitterly to allegations that they had engaged in atrocities in the east Bosian campaign, calling such charges "wrong and malicious." "Our forces are the most civilized in the world," local Bosnian Serb commander Mile Kosoric told Serb-run media.

At the United Nations, meanwhile, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic declared that his forces are pressing their attacks around Cerska and elsewhere in eastern Bosnia to avenge the killing of their relatives by Muslims. He said many Serbs had died during an offensive by Muslim forces two months ago that the Serbs are now beating back.

Karadzic, who was taking part in internationally sponsored peace negotiations before the talks were suspended late Thursday, said also that while he can control the main Bosnian Serb military force, "it is difficult to handle local forces when they discover their relatives are buried in mass graves." He did not elaborate.

Since Serb forces have held Cerska and several other nearby Muslim enclaves in a tight siege for months, the exact situation in the region is unclear. Most of the available information comes from shortwave radio operators in contact with Sarajevo, the capital, but much of this is sketchy and sometimes contradictory.

Still, reports reaching U.N. aid officials and Western diplomats in Sarajevo and Belgrade, capital of neighboring Serbia, indicate that as many as 50,000 refugees from the eastern enclaves may be on the move in search of safe havens. A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Tuzla, about 60 miles northwest of Cerska, said he expected about 20,000 refugees to pour into that city.

Other reports indicated that as many as 1,000 Muslim civilians may have died in the Serb advance, and that about 10,000 others were seeking what little shelter they could find in the ruins of Cerska and Konjevic Polje, another town in the same enclave. None of these reports could be independently confirmed