Murder imperils peace talks

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The Independent Online
International efforts to end the war in Bosnia were threatened last night after the assassination in Sarajevo of a Bosnian deputy prime minister who was travelling under United Nations protection.

The Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, was under tremendous pressure from his government to pull out of peace talks in Geneva which had been due to resume today under the auspices of the European Community and UN mediators, Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance. Mr Izetbegovic said this would be as a protest at the killing of Hakija Turajlic by a Serb militiaman on Friday. Prospects of a successful outcome had already been placed in doubt when the Bosnian Serbs rejected outright the peace terms on offer.

A Yugoslav government spokesman said in Belgrade last night that the talks had been postponed until tomorrow due to bad weather affecting flight schedules. The spokesman said the Yugoslav President, Dobrica Cosic, the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and the Montenegrin President Momir Bulatovic would not leave for Geneva until today.

Last night Mr Izetbegovic said he would go to Geneva but might go back to Sarajevo after two or three days. 'I think this negotiation cannot continue if the most elementary things such as food supplies under UN control are not ensured,' he said. Another condition was that UN forces be allowed to defend relief convoys.

The killing of Mr Turajlic has put under grave strain the relationship between the Bosnian Muslims and the UN forces. As he was buried in Sarajevo yesterday, an emotional crowd gathered outside UN headquarters chanting 'Murderers] Murderers]'

The UN commander, General Phillipe Morillon, said the death was the result of a 'tragedy of errors', and appealed for calm. Recalling that the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 had led to millions of deaths, he said: 'I hope history will not repeat its madness.'

The deputy prime minister had been travelling in the back of a French armoured vehicle on Friday afternoon on the road between the city and Sarajevo airport. The first detailed account of what happened was given yesterday by the French government.

The vehicle was stopped at a Serb roadblock, where some of the militiamen managed to identify the passenger. 'The roadblock was formed by tracked armoured vehicles armed with 25mm cannons and about 50 militiamen armed with anti-tank weapons, Kalashnikov assault rifles and other automatic weapons,' the statement said. For an hour and 45 minutes the tension rose, and when the highest-ranking Serb said he was going to arrest Mr Turajlic a senior French officer at the scene, Colonel Patrice Sartre, and two legionnaires positioned themselves in front of the back door of the vehicle. The door was ajar, and a Serb militiaman stopped them closing it.

Colonel Sartre and the two legionnaires 'were held at gunpoint, at point-blank range, for nearly half an hour,' the statement said. They managed to persuade the Serb leaders to seek orders from their superiors and a lull followed until suddenly two or three militiamen tried to pull Mr Turajlic out of the doorway. The Serb leaders intervened, but one of the militiamen then fired several shots over the colonel's shoulder at the Bosnian minister.

Serb commanders immediately opened the road to allow Mr Turajlic to be taken to hospital, but he was already dead. The Serbs later announced that the soldier who shot him had been arrested and would be tried.

In Geneva, Lord Owen and Mr Vance condemned the killing as an 'atrocious act', and promised a full UN investigation.

Lord Owen said the talks were 'the moment of truth' for the Bosnian Serbs. 'They have to decide whether they want to take on the world or live with the world, whether they want to be a pariah.'

The murder was a graphic illustration of the limits of the UN's military strength in Bosnia. Its role is restricted to escort work and self-protection. It is clear from the French account that the force involved on Friday was heavily outgunned by the Serbs, but questions are certain to be asked about why the door of the vehicle came to be open at a roadblock when such a senior passenger was inside. The UN rules of engagement specifically say that doors should be kept closed.

Britain, meanwhile, is looking at sending reinforcements to Bosnia. Artillery units based in Germany have been placed on alert, together with the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. This follows two attacks by Serb artillery on the British logistics base at Tomislavgrad on Friday.