Bosnia peace in balance as siege eases

Airport reopens but Muslims stall
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The Independent Online




Bosnian Serbs began to bow to international demands for an end to the siege of Sarajevo yesterday, moving some heavy weapons and opening the airport for the first time in five months.

But the US-brokered deal - even as it bore its first fruit - was dismissed by the Bosnian government as too soft on the Serbs. The Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, protested that the terms were easier than the international community's original demands. He complained that it allowed the Serbs to keep small and medium-sized guns and mortars in the hills surrounding the city. Up to one-third of the estimated arsenal of 300 guns would remain.

However, the US State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said last night that, while the calibre of weapons proposed to be withrawn by the Bosnian Serbs was different from what the UN had demanded, discussions were still going on to clarify the issue.

A senior Bosnian Serb leader praised the deal as a step towards a key Serb goal - the partition of the Bosnian capital. Nevertheless Contact Group nations - the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Germany - meeting in Geneva last night were relatively optimistic. A key official said the aim was to get a deal to halt fighting across Bosnia "within weeks."

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said the provisional agreement was "encouraging" but warned that everything depended on what happened in the next few days. The Serbs have been given 72 hours to remove half their heavy weapons, and another three days to shift the remainder. President Bill Clinton yesterday issued a formal warning that Nato air strikes, suspended on Thursday, would resume if the Serbs failed to keep their promise.

Mr Clinton said the deal reached over the last two days could herald the end of "Bosnia's long nightmare". The US was "absolutely determined" to reach a settlement, "not on the battlefield but at the negotiating table", he said.

The history of the Balkan wars is littered with failed peace initiatives. Hopes that the present exercise will prove more durable rest on two factors. First, the Bosnian Serbs have begun to lose the war, surrendering huge tracts of western Bosnia to a Croat and Muslim advance in recent days. Second, the US is, for the first time, fully engaged in the negotiations.

But the Muslim and Croat successes in the battlefield could embolden the Bosnian government to reject the peace terms.

The deal to lift the three-year siege was agreed at an 11-hour meeting in Belgrade on Thursday between the US envoy, Richard Holbrooke, and the Serbs, led by President Slobodan Milosevic. At this meeting, the Bosnian serb leaders, General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, signed a paper agreeing to withdraw the weapons and allow free access to the city for the UN and aid agencies.

But the deal fell short of demands issued two weeks ago by Nato and the UN, which wanted to see all artillery, anti-aircraft guns and mortars pulled out of range of civilian targets. Indications earlier yesterday suggested the deal would allow mortars of 82mm or less, artillery of 100mm or less and all anti-aircraft guns to remain inside a 20-km exclusion zone. These have been among the most deadly Serb weapons.

Brink of peace, pages 8,9

The deal

nBosnian Serbs to remove half of heavy weapons from around Sarajevo by Sunday night and all of them within three more days.

nThree-day suspension in Nato air operations.

nNato and UN to assess level of Serb compliance.

nFailure to comply, or attacks on other safe areas, "will lead to the resumption of air operations"

nBosnian government to refrain from any offensive action and to have Unprofor monitor its heavy weapons inside the exclusion zone.