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Fighting Continues Despite Bosnian Area Cease-Fire

By Dean E. Murphy and Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times
BASTRA, BOSNIA

Fighting subsided Thursday in much of Bosnia-Herzegovina on the first day of a U.S.-brokered cease-fire, but the familiar sounds of war echoed as before through towns and villages in the country's fiercely contested northwest.

U.N. officials, charged with monitoring the 60-day truce, issued a generally upbeat assessment of its first 24 hours. But battles were so intense across northwest Bosnia that U.N. observers were denied access to the front lines and could not report on violations there.

An unmanned roadblock near this tiny farm village within earshot of the fighting contained a handwritten warning that reflected the unchanged reality in much of the divided country: "Stop! War Zone."

"All day we've been hearing detonations," said Sulejman Burzic, who chopped his winter wood supply to a cacophony of explosions from beyond a distant ridge. "We can't tell who is doing the shooting, but we know there is fighting."

U.N. officials acknowledged that they were unable to pinpoint blame for the truce violations or even accurately gauge how severe the fighting had become. But a spokesman in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, said officials had known it might take days for cease-fire lines to stabilize.

"It's a pretty complicated thing to disentangle troops who are separated by a few hundred meters in difficult terrain," said spokesman Yuriy Chizhik. "Our assessment is the cease-fire is getting rooted, and it's a complicated process but we see movement."

A spokesman for the Bosnian army, which blocked U.N. monitors, journalists and humanitarian workers from the northwest battle zones, said the area is too dangerous because large bands of Bosnian Serbs remain in the woods. Access to this village, on the outskirts of the contested town of Otoka, was gained only through a circuitous route along dirt roads that circumvented military checkpoints.

Bosnian army Capt. Mido Tormanovic said hundreds of rebel Serbs became separated from their units during the past few days of fighting and were being rounded up by Muslim-Croat forces. "I don't think they even know there is a cease-fire," Tormanovic said.

It is also likely the Bosnian army did not want to reveal to outsiders the extent of its unabated military action, some Western military observers said.

Soldiers on both sides reported continued battles over key territory that lies between Banja Luka, the largest Bosnian Serb-held city, and Bihac, the headquarters of the Bosnian army's 5th Corps. The most intense fighting Thursday was in Sanski Most, a strategically important town midway between the two cities that was seized by government forces just before the truce began.

A Bosnian army soldier who returned from the front line south of Sanski Most said fighting began anew when Bosnian Serb troops tried to take back lost ground just minutes before the cease-fire deadline.

"There was no time to celebrate," said the soldier, speaking Thursday in Bihac. "We were fighting again before the cease-fire even started."

Bosnian Serb army commander Gen. Ratko Mladic wrote a letter to the U.N. Protection Force protesting "Muslim" actions in the Sanski Most area, while the government army accused the Serbs of launching an artillery attack near the nearby town of Prijedor, aimed at recovering Sanski Most.

"There has been some fighting, but we can't say who's attacking whom," a U.N. official said. "We are concerned and hope it stops soon."

Several young Bosnian soldiers who returned Wednesday and Thursday from the front lines said troops were eager to end the war, despite tough talk about marching all the way to Banja Luka.

In Bastra, Padil Sabic was still wearing his military fatigues while helping his uncle repair the roof and walls to his barn in preparation for the winter.

Sabic, whose own house across the street was mostly in ruins, said soldiers in the trenches have been talking eagerly of life after the war.

"The plan is to go home, get rid of everything (from the army), eat home-cooked meals and see your girlfriend or wife and kids," said Sabic, 24. "A little lovemaking. We've had enough war-making."