The Bosnian Serb army pushed ahead Tuesday in its takeover of a second United Nations-designated “safe area,” marching into the town of Zepa but finding its streets and homes almost deserted, U.N. officials said.
Muslim women, their children and government soldiers, fearing atrocities, fled in advance of the Bosnian Serb troops and sought refuge in the surrounding caves and forests. The Bosnian Serbs’ capture of Zepa follows by exactly two weeks the fall of Srebrenica, another U.N.-protected enclave where conquering Serbs expelled more than 30,000 Muslims in the single largest incident of “ethnic cleansing” in the 39-month Bosnian war.
Written off by the United Nations and the West, Zepa had resisted for a week of Bosnian Serb shelling and psychological warfare. The isolated enclave of 17,000 people received no assistance even after Washington and allied nations pledged a more aggressive defense of the safe areas.
The Muslim-led but nonsectarian Bosnian government, insisting that parts of the enclave remained under its control, said its forces in Zepa would turn over their weapons to the United Nations as the nationalist Serbs are demanding - but only if U.N. officials agree to evacuate civilians and airlift soldiers from Zepa. “Any evacuation without the protection of (U.N. peacekeeping forces) would mean sure death,” Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic asserted.
The government is also demanding that U.N. troops be authorized to use force to shield the evacuation. But there were reports early Wednesday that some evacuations had begun - without U.N. protection.
The government army Tuesday evening acknowledged its forces had abandoned the town of Zepa but said they were repositioning themselves on high ground above it to better defend the enclave.
Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb army commander who Tuesday was formally indicted by a U.N. tribunal as an international war crimes suspect, toured the town of Zepa in the morning to survey his latest gains, U.N. officials said. “Bosnian Serb soldiers are moving through Zepa with impunity,” said Lt. Col. Chris Vernon, military spokesman for the United Nations.
Mladic later met through most of the afternoon with Lt. Gen. Rupert Smith, commander of U.N. forces in Bosnia, to negotiate the evacuation of Zepa.
About 150 wounded people - both soldiers and civilians, according to U.N. officials - were ferried from Zepa to Sarajevo. About 1,000 refugees were also reported en route to the government-held city of Tuzla, on Bosnian Serb buses and without international monitors.
The loss of Zepa would leave only Gorazde from the three eastern enclaves created by the United Nations two years ago to give haven to Muslims driven from their homes by ethnic warfare. The inability of the United Nations to preserve the enclaves and protect their people has come to represent one of the most abysmal failures of an increasingly impotent peacekeeping mission.