Bosnian Soldiers Battle to Bitter Edge of Truce : Balkans: Government forces try to gain more territory and clear supply lines before cease-fire begins.


As the clock ticked toward a scheduled cease-fire, the prospect of peace meant one thing Monday night to soldiers moving toward the front line near here: Hurry up before time runs out.

"You live once and you die once," said Ismail Mujetic, 54, a Bosnian government fighter preparing for battle beyond a ridge of ash trees about two miles away. "We should keep moving forward, for our people and our country."

The thunder of artillery and mortar exchanges rolled from beyond the hills, already ablaze with the colors of autumn. Ambulances carrying wounded soldiers raced past a military checkpoint here to the nearest hospital, 25 miles away in Bihac.

"We all want peace," said Mujetic, whose three sons also were dispersed on battlefields in northwest Bosnia-Herzegovina. "But if we can't have real peace, we all want to fight on."

Hundreds of soldiers from the Bosnian government's 5th Corps passed through here in a rush to claim territory before a truce begins. Thousands of other government troops, backed by Bosnian Croat and Croatian army forces, reportedly were advancing elsewhere.

The cease-fire, which was supposed to have begun at 12:01 a.m. today local time, was delayed after a key condition--restoration of utilities to Sarajevo--was not met.

The soldiers here, rank and file and officers, never believed the deadline would be honored, and one commander said the operating assumption was to keep pushing forward until ordered to do otherwise.

Although they have suffered setbacks in the past few days, the combined Bosnian-Croat forces have made significant gains against the Bosnian Serbs in recent weeks, recapturing about one-fifth of the country. Many Bosnians, both soldiers and civilians, fear a peace agreement now would prevent further territorial gains.

"We will fight all the time unless we get the order to stop," said Maj. Mirsad Kursic, whose heavily fortified white Volkswagen was the lead car in a convoy of soldiers, artillery, mortars and antiaircraft guns. "If you look at this globally, it is a pity to stop now. It will just take a little more time for us to reach the final peace for Bosnia."

Many of the soldiers in Kursic's 501st Brigade carried machine guns and other weapons marked in the Cyrillic letters of their Serbian enemies. The etchings on one automatic weapon celebrated a Bosnian Serb attack on Bihac in February. Another listed the names of a soldier and his friends.

The seized weapons, Kursic explained, have been the Bosnian government army's answer to the international arms embargo. Instead of attacking Bosnian Serb lines head on, he said, government troops have advanced in a wedge, piercing the Serbian front. The tactic enables Bosnian soldiers to raid enemy arms depots and then circle around and continue their assault from the rear.

The spoils from such attacks have helped fuel an ongoing Bosnian government drive to take a vast triangle of territory in northwest Bosnia between the towns of Bosanski Novi, Bosanski Petrovac and Bosanska Krupa.

Capturing the land would open railway and communication lines between Zagreb, the Croatian capital to the north, and Bihac, the largest Bosnian government-controlled city in the region. A long delay in the cease-fire, soldiers said Monday, could help them achieve that goal before winter.

Although fighting has moved beyond Jasenica, the clatter of machine-gun fire could still be heard as convoys of soldiers tested their weapons on farm animals grazing on the roadside. As nightfall descended, several hundred soldiers set up camp and roasted lamb for dinner. They were prepared to back up the others if fighting continues or secure the front line if a cease-fire takes effect.

"We are not going to let them take back territory we have liberated," Kursic said.

The village was deserted except for four old Serbs found in the woods. Most everyone from the town--which was populated almost entirely by Serbs--fled when Bosnian government troops arrived two weeks ago.

The four Serbs sat on a log near a makeshift police station, nervously awaiting their destiny. Police said the men were taken prisoner because they were carrying weapons, and it was clear they were too frightened to resist.

One of the Serbs, Zarko Majkic, 75, stood at attention and saluted as a Western journalist asked him about the cease-fire. "Today is the first day of a happy 1995," he said.

The old man began to weep as several Bosnian government soldiers cut off the interview and told him to sit down. Police said the men would be taken to International Committee of the Red Cross authorities in Bihac. Majkic said he just wanted to go home.

"We would be happy if everything worked out and we could go back living together as before," he said.

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