BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Deadly ethnic clashes in the newly independent state of Bosnia-Herzegovina have sent thousands fleeing in terror, U.N. refugee workers reported Friday after finding about 10,000 Muslim women and children huddled in a single village without food or shelter.
The United Nations refugee agency said in Belgrade that the group of terrified civilians found near the embattled city of Zvornik, on the border with Serbia, was probably one of many drifting about the tense republic in search of safety.
Bosnia's Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, appealed to the international community for help after claiming that Serbian guerrillas had threatened to kill 3,000 civilians trapped near Zvornik.
It was not clear whether the group Izetbegovic referred to was part of the crowd encountered by a delegation of U.N. refugee officials that traveled to besieged Sarajevo on Friday.
Zvornik, about 60 miles northeast of Sarajevo, has been nearly razed by fierce battles, and heavily armed Serbian guerrillas were seen clearing lifeless bodies from the streets, U.N. refugee official Jose-Maria Mendiluce reported by radio to Belgrade.
The huge crowd of Muslim refugees found about two miles southwest of Zvornik, in the village of Litija, said they had been chased from their homes by Serbian vigilantes and feared that they would be massacred.
"I can't believe this is happening in Europe in 1992," said Judith Kumin of the U.N. refugee agency's Belgrade office as she sought to arrange evacuation of the refugees from Litija to the predominantly Muslim city of Tuzla, about 25 miles west.
Aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross were headed to the area to provide "an international presence" to ease the refugees' fears, Kumin said, but a shortage of willing bus drivers and concern about the ubiquitous armed gangs controlling the region was expected to delay the rescue by at least a day.
Fighting has flared across mountainous, multiethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina for more than a week, since militant Serbs opposed to independence seized control of several key northern cities and announced that they were forming their own republic that would remain allied with Serbia.
Many of Bosnia's Serbs--about 31% of the republic's 4.4 million citizens--oppose independence because they would be politically severed from Serbia. Muslims and Croats, who make up nearly two-thirds of the population, voted to secede from Yugoslavia to break free of the Serb-dominated federation left after Slovenia and Croatia won independence.
The Serbian takeover of Zvornik, however, has been conducted by Belgrade paramilitary commandos under the direction of an underworld kingpin known as Arkan, who has made televised announcements that his Serbian Volunteer Guard had "liberated" the area.
Clashes pitting the Serbian-led Yugoslav army against Croats have also racked Croatia this week, despite a U.N.-brokered cease-fire nominally in place since Jan. 3.
U.N. peacekeeping troops have begun deploying to Croatia's ethnic trouble spots to deter further fighting there. But Western diplomats and aid agencies familiar with the complex Balkan crisis now fear that the war has moved to Bosnia-Herzegovina and that casualties could quickly eclipse the 10,000 killed last year in Croatia.