Serbs meet deadline to pull out guns

Warning of Muslim threat to peace
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The Independent Online
As the Bosnian peace process reached a critical moment, rebel Serb forces, encouraged by the threatening roar of Nato jets overhead, complied with UN demands to withdraw heavy weapons threatening Sarajevo, winning a further 72-hour pause in Nato air strikes.

General Bernand Janvier, the UN commander, and his Nato counterpart, Admiral Leighton Smith, judged the Bosnian Serbs to have made "a substantial start" on fulfilling demands to pull back big guns and guarantee the UN free access to Sarajevo. "We have agreed that the suspension of air strikes be extended for an additional 72 hours," Gen Janvier said in a statement last night.

However, Malcolm Rifkind last night warned that the current offensive in western Bosnia by Bosnian government and Croat forces could jeopardise a lasting settlement and would produce only an "immediate advantage". The Foreign Secretary was speaking in Belgrade after meeting President Slobodan Milosevic. He is to travel to Sarajevo today.

Ominously, a Croatian leader last night indicated that the goal of the offensive was the conquest of the whole of northwestern Bosnia, including Banja Luka, the biggest Serb-held town. "It is absolutely in the interest of Croatia that the Banja Luka area becomes a part of the Bosnian Federation," government minister Bosiljko Misetic said on state television.

It was the first time that a minister of Croatia had suggested that Banja Luka, now crammed with tens of thousands of Serb refugees, was a possible target.

Meanwhile General Janvier said that the three-day pause in air strikes "will permit the Bosnian Serbs to completely relocate their heavy weapons beyond the limits of the Sarajevo total exclusion zone. It would also allow for a continuation, without constraint or control, of unimpeded road and air access to Sarajevo." But the Serbs were warned that any backsliding on the withdrawal of weapons and any "hostile action" in the Sarajevo area would be punished by the immediate resumption of air strikes. "Such action would in effect negate the commitments made by them," he said. The UN commander in Bosnia, Lt-Gen Rupert Smith, is to meet commanders of both the Bosnian and the Bosnian Serb armies to agree a cessation of hostilities around Sarajevo and to discuss a nation-wide ceasefire. "The next few days and hours may well determine the fate of the war," said Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy pushing the latest peace initiative, on arrival in Sarajevo for talks with the Bosnian government.

If the Serbs fail to pull out more than 300 guns and mortars banned by the UN, "the United States will certainly advocate a resumption of the Nato bombing", Mr Holbrooke said. One UN military source said yesterday that 160 of the biggest guns had been moved away from the city.

UN convoys had moved along two designated roads into Sarajevo, but "totally unimpeded freedom of movement" had not yet been achieved.

Mr Holbrooke, who brokered the weapons deal at a meeting in Belgrade last week, brushed aside Bosnian and UN complaints that the agreement excluded smaller mortars and guns, and anti-aircraft artillery, blaming a "clerical error". But even under slightly amended criteria - 82mm mortars and 100mm guns must now be withdrawn - the Serbs may still keep dozens of small mortars, anti-aircraft guns and small cannons around the city.

Bosnian concern stems partly from the continuing threat to civilians, although the UN has promised to avenge all attacks on the city with its own artillery, and partly from a sense that the deal will allow the Serbs to maintain the siege. Keeping a grip on Sarajevo is more important than ever for the Serbs. The huge losses in western Bosnia over the past few days have diminished the proportion of land that they hold, endangering the international plan for a 51-49 per cent split between the government and the Serbs.

The Bosnian Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, and the Bosnian Foreign Minister, Mohamed Sacirbey, yesterday dodged questions about whether they were willing to surrender land surplus to the 51 per cent threshold to the proposed Serb entity in Bosnia, in the event of more battlefield successes.