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Bosnians Ask Croatia To Help Out Prime Minister Pleads For Help Defending ‘Safe Area’ Of Bihac

Declaring the war with rebel Serbs at a crossroads, the Bosnian government asked neighboring Croatia for military aid Wednesday, increasing the possibility of a wider Balkan war and Western involvement.

Bosnia’s Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, pleaded for help in defending the northwestern Bosnian “safe area” of Bihac, which is under a three-pronged assault by Serbs across the border in Croatia, Serbs in Bosnia and by Muslims rebelling against the Muslim-led Sarajevo government. Thousands of civilians are on the run, and government forces are in retreat.

Silajdzic also appealed to the United States to lift the U.N. arms embargo on the Bosnian government. The U.S. Senate voted to do just that Wednesday.

“We need help from Croatia,” Silajdzic said. “This is the moment of truth. We need their direct and coordinated attacks.”

Croatia and Bosnia agreed Saturday to increase military cooperation, particularly in the Bihac area.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, meanwhile, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali gave military commanders in Bosnia the authority to call in NATO airstrikes without first clearing it with him.

His announcement came hours after NATO warned it would launch preemptive and prolonged airstrikes if Bosnian Serbs advance on the eastern U.N. “safe area” of Gorazde. NATO ordered military planners to devise similar plans for Bihac.

The Croatian government is eager to recapture territories taken by rebel Croatian Serbs in 1991. Its army could attempt to seize those territories - sandwiched between Croatian troops and Bihac in Bosnia - if it is deployed toward Bihac.

Croatian TV reported that Bosnian Croat forces, which work closely with the Croatian army, advanced south of Bihac to within five miles of a key road linking the Croatian Serb stronghold of Knin, just across the border, with Bosnian Serb territories.

The Serbs and rebel Muslims have seized 34 square miles of territory in the past week in Bihac, which is home to more than 200,000 people. In doing so, the rebels have skirted the small U.N. “safe area” within the enclave, hoping to avoid triggering foreign involvement.

In a conference call with Western journalists, Bihac Mayor Mersud Ferizovic said that 25,000 rebel troops were on the attack, backed by more than 60 tanks and artillery. He said 58 civilians had been killed and 180 wounded in recent days. There was no independent confirmation.

Aid officials fear the Serb offensive in Bihac could create yet another refugee crisis. About 1,400 civilians from the fallen “safe area” of Zepa reached the central government-held town of Kladanj on Wednesday, and a second convoy with 1,000 people was on its way, U.N. officials said.

The Serbs seized Zepa on Tuesday, two weeks after taking Srebrenica, another east Bosnian “safe area.” Refugees from Srebrenica reported Serb atrocities against non-Serbs, and an estimated 7,000 people are missing.

The Zepa refugees who reached Kladanj - women, children and elderly - reported Serb taunts, but didn’t allege abuses of the kind reported from Srebrenica.

“They appeared calm … less traumatized than refugees from Srebrenica,” said Fernando del Mundo, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “But life in Zepa was certainly hell.”

Zepa had been under Serb bombardment for days.

Some U.N. officials were concerned about prospects for a smooth evacuation of the several thousand remaining civilians from Zepa.

“The initial departure was OK, but that does not mean it will stay the same,” said Kris Janowski, a UNHCR spokesman. “We may still see some ugly things. The Bosnian Serb promises have, until now, been usually worthless.” government. Should Gorazde, the last eastern “safe area” fall, the Bosnian Serbs would have hold all of eastern Bosnia, a key step to uniting the 70 percent of the country they hold with neighboring Serbia.

Serb shelling of Sarajevo, another U.N. “safe area,” increased sharply Wednesday. Two people were killed and 13 were wounded.