SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- As a long-sought cease-fire was delayed yet again yesterday, Serbs were undertaking a huge new "ethnic cleansing" campaign around their stronghold, Banja Luka, expelling thousands of women, children and the elderly and leading thousands of men away to uncertain fates, United Nations officials said.
The Bosnian government, complaining that gas and electricity had not been sufficiently restored to Sarajevo, said it would delay a cease-fire in its war with Bosnian Serbs for at least another day.
In the past four days, as a cease-fire was thought to be drawing near, 10,000 Muslims and Croats were reported to have been driven from their homes around Bosanski Novi, Sanski Most and Prijedor. The men of fighting age were separated and detained, and some of them may have been killed while the others were sent to the government-held town of Zenica, U.N. officials said.
Officials of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said they fear that all of the estimated 20,000 non-Serbs who remain in the Banja Luka area may face the same fate.
They also invoked the recent memories of the fall of the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, saying they were afraid that the men now under detention would be killed in the same way that thousands of Muslim men apparently were gunned down by the Bosnian Serbs after the enclave, an area protected by the United Nations, fell in July.
The officials said about 5,000 men are already missing and presumed detained, and that they expect as many as 9,000 people to arrive in Bosnian government-held territory in the coming days from the Banja Luka area.
The "ethnic cleansing" is being carried out by what is reported to be a mixed force of Serbian soldiers from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia under the command of Zeljko Raznatovic, a paramilitary leader known as Arkan, who has been accused of some of the worst atrocities of the war, U.N. officials said.
"Armed, uniformed men enter people's homes and tell them to leave immediately," said Mans Nyberg, a spokesman for the commissioner for refugees. "The Muslim and Croat men are being separated from their families. We now have perhaps over 5,000 men missing. These men are apparently being held at a number of detention centers in northern Bosnia."
The International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the few international relief agencies in the Serbian-controlled area, said it has been denied access to the Muslims being driven from their homes, as well as those now in detention.
Officials of the agency said that staff members who tried to speak to Muslims being evicted were ordered out of the area at gunpoint by Bosnian Serb troops.
"The Serbs appear to be expelling all of the minorities," said Mr. Nyberg. "This is the final phase."
Banja Luka had a population of 195,000 before the war broke out in 1992, but it is now swollen with some 100,000 Serbian refugees who fled Croatia's Krajina region when Croatian army troops recaptured it in August.
Since the arrival of these refugees the Bosnian Serbs have stepped up their expulsions of Muslims and Croats from Banja Luka and the Serbian-held areas surrounding it.
"These are among the most brutal expulsions we have seen since Srebrenica," Mr. Nyberg said.
And before Srebrenica, there was a long tradition of ethnic cleansing, most of it on the part of Bosnian Serbs, who swept through Muslim and Croatian towns, driving out, detaining or killing the residents and taking over the houses and the territory. In recent weeks Muslims and Croats have retaken some of those areas and residents have begun to trickle back.
The Croats as well have been blamed for killing civilians, most of them elderly or infirm Serbs who remained in the Krajina after it returned to Croatian hands.