Bosnia peace close as Nato halts strikes

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The Nato alliance last night suspended its air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs after the US Special Envoy, Richard Holbrooke, was reported on the brink of an agreement to end the siege of Sarajevo.

US officials said last night Mr Holbrooke had indeed reached an accord with the Serbs, Croatia and the Bosnian government, and that it would be announced this morning. Under the agreement, the Bosnian Serbs will pull half of their heavy weapons from Sarajevo within three days, and all such weapons within six days.

The official conclusion of the agreement was so close that President Bill Clinton at one point planned a statement to the press last night, the White House press service.

A US official told Agence France-Presse that, barring last-minute changes, the agreement will be announced early today in Zagreb by General Bernard Janvier, the French commander of the UN Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia.

The American negotiators talked late into the night with the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, to try to win guarantees that more than 100,000 Serbs living around Sarajevo would not be attacked if the Serb military commanders withdrew their heavy weapons.

No agreement was announced when the meeting ended in Mostar. Still, US sources were confident such guarantees would be given, opening the way for the announcement that the siege had been lifted - possibly opening the way to a wider settlement.

However, Croat and Muslim leaders may be in no mood to hand large concessions to the Bosnian Serbs, as their own forces sweep through western Bosnia, forcing Serb units into a humiliating retreat. The United Nations said as many as 50,000 Serb refugees were fleeing from the battles yesterday.

In Brussels, Nato diplomats said air strikes were called off for up to 72 hours to allow the Bosnian Serbs to comply with Nato's demand that they pull back their artillery and armour from an exclusion zone of about 12 miles around the besieged city. Mr Holbrooke extracted a promise that they would do so during 11 hours of bargaining with the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, in Belgrade. Then he rushed to see the leaders of Bosnia and Croatia to argue for a local ceasefire to allow the Serbs to conduct a verified withdrawal.

Mr Milosevic claims to be speaking for the Bosnian Serbs, but there has been no public statement from the rebel leadership in Pale.

Diplomats familiar with Mr Holbrooke's talks in Belgrade said the deal would amount to a surrender by the Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic, to the demands made by General Janvier: that he withdraw heavy weapons from Sarajevo, open an aid route and restore utilities.

A Western source described the reciprocal demands made on the Bosnian government, under discussion last night, as "very limited ".They essentially require the government to declare its heavy gun positions to the UN and guarantee no attack on Serb-held civilian areas of the Sarajevo suburbs, while a permanent ceasefire around the city is negotiated.

Mr Holbrooke is expected in Geneva today to brief British, French, Russian and German officials on the latest moves. Plans are already in the works for a Nato-led "Peace Implementation Force" to replace Unprofor, which would pull out of the former Yugoslavia. Its ranks would include Russian soldiers alongside contingents drawn from the Western alliance.

Bosnia reports, pages 12, 13