Allied Croats and Muslims, seeking to capitalize on recent victories that have altered the fortunes of war, unleashed new offensives Saturday against Serbs in southern and western Bosnia.
Several thousand Serbs already have fled the new fighting and may end up joining the flood of refugees from last weekend’s Croatian blitz. Aid officials charged that ethnic Croats were being forced out of their homes in Serbia and Serb-held parts of Bosnia to make room for the more than 100,000 Serbs who fled the Croatian army’s advance.
There had been little fighting anywhere since Monday, when Croatia wrapped up its drive to recapture the lion’s share of land taken by Serbs there during their 1991 rebellion.
But early Saturday, Croats around the resort city of Dubrovnik began a cross-border attack toward the Serb-held town of Trebinje in southern Bosnia. Bosnian Serbs are within shelling distance of the picturesque port city, and hit its airport Saturday.
Under a military cooperation agreement with the Muslim-led Bosnian government, the Croats were apparently trying to push into Bosnian Serb territory and relieve the threat to Dubrovnik.
Local Trebinje radio said three civilians were wounded in the Croatian attack. Dubrovnik hospital officials said they were treating three wounded Croatian soldiers.
AP reporter Shawn Pogatchnik reported seeing traces of artillery smoke over the corners of the city as he arrived in Dubrovnik late Saturday, but no shelling of the city itself. Croatian soldiers were in high spirits. “We’re going to Trebinje,” one said.
U.N. spokesman Chris Vernon in Sarajevo said several thousand Serbs already had left Trebinje.
About 105 miles to the north, Bosnian government forces launched an attack on Serbs around the town of Donji Vakuf. That offensive appears aimed at the larger town of Jajce. Its capture would be a big morale boost for the Bosnian army and put it closer to the Serb stronghold of Banja Luka to the north.
A local U.N. spokesman, Maj. Carlos Alonso, said the fighting continued into Saturday evening and “the Bosnian army is making progress.”
He could not say how far Bosnian forces had advanced. The United Nations said progress of the two offensives was difficult to gauge because access had been restricted.
But the Croatian and Bosnian armies clearly were trying to keep the pressure on the Bosnian Serbs, who for the first time look vulnerable.
Croatian soldiers captured a couple of key towns in western Bosnia last month, and followed up by slicing through adjacent territory in southern Croatia. Serbs had controlled the area since they rebelled in 1991 against Croatia’s declaration of independence from the old Yugoslav federation.
That offensive has shifted the balance of power and given international mediators new hope of cobbling together the solution to the war that so far has eluded them. Both Russia and the United States stepped up their diplomatic activity in the past week.
Germany’s Defense Ministry said Saturday that U.S. diplomats were pushing for a Balkan summit that would bring together the presidents of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia, along with representatives of five countries that have attempted to mediate: the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.
The Paris daily Le Monde said the United States wanted the Bosnian government to swap its last enclave in eastern Bosnia, Gorazde, for other territory. Its unsourced report said Bosnian Serbs could face more NATO airstrikes if they refused the plan.
The Bosnian Serb news agency SRNA quoted Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic as saying most of the U.S. proposal was acceptable.
The Croatian offensive, which began Aug. 4, sent tens of thousands of Serb villagers fleeing to Serb-held Bosnia and Serb-led Yugoslavia. Aid officials estimated about 80,000 already had crossed into Yugoslavia.
Serbs will receive hundreds of tons of food and other humanitarian aid that they have prevented from reaching Sarajevo in recent months, UNHCR officials said Saturday.
With Serbs refusing to allow regular truck convoys and airlifts into Sarajevo, aid has piled up in warehouses outside of Bosnia. This aid is now being delivered to Banja Luka.