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A fuel shortage resulting from blockades by nationalist Serbs has virtually paralyzed U.N. military and aid operations in the most vulnerable areas of this war-torn country, U.N. officials said on Saturday.

Although the Bosnian Serbs have sporadically permitted food to enter some encircled Muslim enclaves in recent days, they are barring trucks carrying aviation or diesel fuel, said a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force here, Lt. Col. Jan-Dirk von Merveldt."It's a fuel embargo," he said. "We regard such restrictions on fuel convoys as a direct attack on the United Nations' troops and on those people for whom we are responsible - the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina - as surely as if it were a military action."

In a move that brought U.N. peacekeepers some respite, nationalist Serb commanders on Saturday freed 187 French, Russian, and Ukrainian troops who had effectively been held hostage at weapons-collection depots around Sarajevo, U.N. officials said. The men had been detained for two weeks as insurance against NATO airstrikes.

The Serbs allowed the United Nations to send in 187 peacekeepers to replace them and pledged that they would have free movement, a U.N. spokesman said. Officials noted that it was unclear whether the replacements would be allowed to carry out their duties fully.

The Serbs began strangling the U.N. military operation in Bosnia late last month after NATO carried out retaliatory airstrikes against Serb-held positions used in the ongoing offensive against the northwestern Muslim town of Bihac. At one time the Serbs were detaining more than 450 U.N. personnel to guard against NATO airstrikes. Nearly all those troops have now been freed or replaced.

But in another challenge, rebel Serbs in Croatia refused to let the commander of the U.N. military force in Bosnia travel through their territory to visit some 1,200 Bangladeshi peacekeepers trapped in the Bihac pocket. The commander, Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, turned back to Zagreb, where he had begun his journey.

Von Merveldt said the releases of the 187 peacekeepers made U.N. officials more "optimistic" that Serbs might loosen their embargo on transit of fuel through Serb-held territory. The Serbs now control 70 percent of Bosnia.

The fuel blockade has reached a critical stage in Sarajevo, in the northwestern town of Bihac and in Zepa and Gorazde, two of the three Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia that have not yet been overrun by Serbs.

Inside the siege lines of Gorazde, British peackeepers have been carrying out their patrols on foot and transporting supplies by mule rather than moving in armored vehicles so they can conserve fuel for generators, a U.N. report said. As a result, such patrols have come under fire at least twice last week.