SARAJEVO — A UNITED NATIONS convoy waited yesterday while negotiators tried to persuade rebel Serbs to allow it through their lines to take emergency aid to starving Muslims in eastern Bosnian towns.
A spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Bosnian Serb commanders in the area told the convoy they had not received permission from their leaders to allow it through. But she added that negotiations were continuing.
The Bosnian Serbs on Sunday demanded a truce with Muslim forces in east Bosnia before allowing the convoys through.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic told UNHCR Special Envoy Jose Maria Mendiluce that there would be no objection to the passage of relief supplies if fighting stopped.
Muslim troops are waging a hit-and-run war against the Serbs in the Drina River valley of eastern Bosnia, where Muslim communities were forced to flee last year during Serb "ethnic cleansing" operations.
Serb defenders of the formerly mixed town of Bratunac on the banks of the Drina reported their lines were under heavy Muslim artillery and infantry attack Sunday.
The latest crisis over aid to eastern Bosnia was sparked when the Bosnian government, in protest against UNHCR's failure to aid the Muslims of eastern Bosnia, announced on Feb. 12 that it would no longer accept UN supplies for Sarajevo, putting a city already suffering from a 10-month-old Serb siege on a virtual hunger strike.
Sarajevo's population of 380,000, including about 50,000 Serbs, rely for their survival on air and road supplies from the UNHCR following a 10-month siege of the city by Serb forces.
The 10 trucks destined for eastern Bosnian towns, loaded with food and medicines, spent Sunday night on the frontier with Serbia after they were turned back at roadblocks manned by Bosnian Serbs.
They left from Belgrade despite being advised by Bosnian Serbs to postpone the mission because of fighting in the area. But a UNHCR official Judith Kumin said, "We simply thought we could not wait any longer."
Mr. Mendiluce held talks Sunday with the rebel Serb leadership and Bosnia's Muslim-led government to try to fix a cease-fire to enable the convoy to get through.
He has also threatened to halt aid supplies to Serbs in eastern Bosnia if the aid convoys continue to be thwarted.
Mendiluce estimated that as many as 25,000 Muslims were trapped by Serb forces in Cerska, one of the Muslim communities in eastern Bosnia which have been cut off from the outside world since civil war erupted in the former Yugoslav republic last March.
Muslim-controlled Sarajevo radio reported that 23 people - 11 of them children - had died of starvation in Cerska in the last two days. It said Cerska had come under heavy bombardment on Sunday.
Mendiluce accused the Serbs of denying relief supplies to the Muslims of eastern Bosnia in an attempt to drive them from their homes.
Mendiluce went to Sarajevo to urge Muslim President Alija Izetbegovic to call off a boycott of UN aid by the city out of sympathy with the stricken Muslims in the east.
UN peacekeepers have been forced to close Sarajevo airport partly because of artillery duels around it, but also because it has no space to store incoming supplies.