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CROATS, BOSNIANS RACE CLOCK IN BID TO REGAIN GROUND

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Thousands of Croatian and Bosnian government troops struck back at Serbs in northwest Bosnia Friday, trying to regain ground four days before a U.S.-brokered truce is to take effect.

The 60-day truce, announced by President Clinton in Washington on Thursday, doesn't take effect until after midnight Tuesday (5 p.m. MDT Monday) and includes provisions likely to delay it. Fighting often has surged before previous truce deadlines in last-minute skirmishing for position.U.N. officials said 3,500 Croatian soldiers were in Bosnia or on its border with Croatia, providing artillery support for thousands of Bosnian government troops who had counterattacked south of Bosanska Krupa, near the Croatian border.

In nearby Bihac, U.N. regional commander Col. Erik Dam said the joint offensive had halted a Bosnian Serb attack 25 miles west of Bosanska Krupa. "The front line is stabilized," Dam said.

Croatian troops were crucial to an offensive that won back wide swaths of territory from the Serbs during recent months. Croatia is not a party to the cease-fire, but Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. diplomat who brokered the truce, said Thursday that Croatian participation has been "indispensable" in reaching it.

U.N. officials had initially reported 100 Croatian soldiers in the region.

U.N. spokesman Jim Landale reported hundreds of explosions overnight around Serb-held Doboj, a key rail junction 55 miles north of Sarajevo.

There were also reports of Serb counteroffensives. Bosnian Serb television reported late Thursday that Serb fighters advancing on government-held Kljuc had entered the town, 85 miles northwest of Sarajevo. The United Nations could not confirm that Friday.

Even if the fighting ebbs, however, other problems could delay the cease-fire, meant to lead to a new round of peace talks in the United States beginning Oct. 25, and an international peace conference in Paris.

Electricity and gas must be restored in Serb-besieged Sarajevo by the time the truce goes into effect. The government army and rebel Bosnian Serbs are to halt all offensive actions, including laying of mines and sniping.

Another truce condition - opening access routes to Serb-besieged Gorazde in the east - also could be difficult to achieve by Tuesday. Roads are rutted and strewn with mines.

Countless other truces have failed in the 42-month-old war, but the combatants deemed themselves committed to observing this latest cease-fire.

"I think this is a serious agreement, and it will be respected," said Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic. "We will respect it, and I think the Bosnian Serbs will respect it."

In a sign of what is expected from the accord, the United Nations announced it would soon begin reducing its peacekeeping force in Bosnia by about one-third, from 30,500 to 21,000 troops. U.N. officials in Sarajevo said Friday the first pullouts should start by the end of the month.

Some Sarajevo residents, confronted by a possible fourth winter of war, were leery of the cease-fire.

"It will be like all the others," said 33-year-old Bosiljka Juzbasic, sitting in her candlelit apartment. "They will give us a little water, a little electricity, the situation will improve for several months - and then all hell will break loose again."

In the northern city of Banja Luka, the biggest Serb-held city, skepticism was equally evident.

"Peace is only a dream," said Stevo Popara, a 60-year-old Serb refugee from neighboring Croatia. "It can take only one nervous soldier from either side to make Clinton have to try again."