Flushed with success after a twoday offensive, government forces battled Saturday to secure ground gained against Serbs near Sarajevo and crack the 38-month encirclement of the city.
The Serbs moved 12 U.N. hostages to Pale, their stronghold outside the capital, amid signs they would be released shortly. French President Jacques Chirac, speaking at the Group of Seven industrialized nations summit in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said Saturday afternoon that the last hostages would probably be free “in the next few hours.”
Bosnia’s president brushed aside international appeals to stop the fighting. His Serb foes also talked tough, declaring a “state of war” around Sarajevo.
Government troops will “liberate” Sarajevo, Bosnia’s Muslim President, Alija Izetbegovic, told state television. He scorned world leaders’ calls for fighting to stop.
“I can tell you openly that we don’t care much for those appeals,” he said. “We are not obliged to care about what the world thinks about this, the world that did nothing for Sarajevo.”
He claimed government gains along 60 miles of front lines.
Bosnian army forces, having cut a key Serb supply route southwest of the city, battled Saturday for control of a high hill that would seal their mastery of the road and remove its exposure to Serb guns, said U.N. spokesman Lt. Col. Gary Coward.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic denied the government had severed any key Serb supply routes on Friday.
Firefights flared in and around Sarajevo on Saturday after both Serb and government forces raided U.N. weapons collection points overnight.
But nothing matched the intensity of Thursday’s or Friday’s battles, when the Muslim-led Bosnian army pounded Serb opponents with artillery, missile and infantry assaults. In retaliation, the Serbs turned tanks and artillery on Sarajevo.
“The Bosnian army has made some fairly significant gains around Sarajevo,” said U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness.
In some places, the government army narrowed the Serb ring around Sarajevo, said a senior U.N. official, insisting on anonymity. It is now just 2.5 miles wide at its narrowest point west of the U.N.-controlled airport.
“It’s certainly the most ambitious, the most complex” operation launched by the government since war erupted in April 1992 with a Serb rebellion, Coward said. More than 200,000 are dead or missing.
Government leaders, concluding that they alone can save their people, have warned for months they would try to break the siege of Sarajevo before a fourth winter passed.
The situation has grown steadily more critical since April, when the humanitarian airlift that has kept the city alive was suspended because Serbs were firing on planes. Warehouses were virtually empty in the city last week.
The most important government gains were made on Mount Trebevic above Sarajevo, where the Bosnian army cut through Serb lines and severed the road linking Serb-held parts of Sarajevo to Pale, Coward said.
Two grenades landed in woods outside Pale on Saturday morning. Neither caused damage or injuries. One, though, hit near the factory that Serb leader Radovan Karadzic recently made his headquarters. Later in the day, Karadzic’s 28-year-old daughter, Sonja, and 250 guests feasted on roast lamb and piglets there during her wedding reception.
The exact casualty toll from the two-day offensive was unknown.
At least 16 Bosnian government soldiers were killed Friday, according to hospital officials. Nine civilians were killed and 53 wounded in government-held Sarajevo in the two-day offensive, and Serb sources said they lost six civilians, with 80 wounded. Six French peacekeepers were wounded Friday.
Serbs moved 11 Canadian peacekeepers and one unidentified U.N. monitor to Pale on Saturday. The 12 men had been held hostage in Ilijas, some 12 miles north of Sarajevo, since May 27, but that region has seen heavy fighting this week.