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Serbs seized heavy weapons from U.N. warehouses and shelled a Croatian port Saturday to retaliate for a Croat attack. The clashes threatened to engulf the former Yugoslav republics in a new spiral of violence.

"They took tanks, mortars, howitzers, multi-barrel rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns - everything," said U.N. civil affairs chief Cedric Thornberry."The situation tonight is extremely grave."

Thornberry did not say how many of the approximately 200 U.N. depots in Croatia had been raided, apparently as part of a Serb declaration of war. Each of the warehouses, which hold weapons surrendered by the Serbs after a cease-fire last year, is guarded by only two or three people, he said.

Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar, the chief U.N. peacekeeper, said weapons were seized in each of the four U.N.-patrolled zones around Croatia. But for the moment there were only reports of fighting in the Krajina region.

The Croatian attack Friday in Krajina, on the Adriatic coast, broke a cease-fire in the former republic, which had been largely at peace since January. Initial Serb and Croat reports said 21 Serbs were killed.

The violence threatened international efforts to bring peace to the former Yugoslav federation and to Bosnia-Herzegovina, the latest hot spot. At least 27,000 people have been killed in the past 18 months.

The State Department also estimates that as many as 70,000 people may be held in more than two dozen detention camps across the former Yugoslavia. Some U.S. officials privately are skeptical that there are that many prisoners.

The New York Times reported in Sunday's editions that there may be as many as 135 camps, mostly run by Serbs, holding 70,000 prisoners. The newspaper cited U.S. intelligence sources.

Peace talks, meanwhile, continued in Geneva on Saturday. But Bosnia, too, was swept by battles among Serbs, Croats and Slavic Muslims.

The Serb moves Saturday responded to a Croatian attack on a spot that was a longtime point of contention for the Serbs and Croats.

Croatian forces using tanks and artillery seized control of the Serb-held eastern bank of the Maslenica gorge near the port of Zadar, said Elizabeth Baldwin, a spokeswoman for U.N. forces in Zagreb.

Serb forces had held the spot since November 1991 and had destroyed a vital bridge linking the Croatian coast with the hinterland.

The Serbs had refused to allow the bridge to be restored, so humanitarian aid for south Croatia and part of Bosnia has had to be sent on ferries, Croatia's deputy interior minister, Zdrevko Zidovec, said in an interview.

He said it was unreasonable to think 1 million people living in south Croatia, and hundreds of thousands in Bosnia, could depend on two or three ferries.

In response to the Croat attack, the self-styled Serb government of the Krajina region declared a state of war late Friday. And on Saturday, Serb forces pillaged the U.N. weapons depots, said Thornberry.

He said the United Nations lacked the manpower to halt the Serbs at weapons depots.

Serbian gunners also brought heavy weapons to Zadar and fired 20 shells into the city, officials there said.

Serbs captured about one-third of Croatian territory in the 1991 war.