UN rule for Sarajevo proposed: All troops would withdraw from near city - Serbian shooting and shelling dies down

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ALL SIDES in the Bosnia war were said to be near agreement last night on a plan to make Sarajevo a United Nations-administered city, to end the siege of the Bosnian capital and relieve its inhabitants' suffering.

It is proposed that all armed forces would pull out of the Sarajevo area, with UN troops maintaining positions in and around the city. The plan was put forward at the Geneva peace talks, which resumed yesterday after a two-week break.

The conference spokesman, John Mills, said: 'The parties accept as a basic principle the exclusion of all armed forces except those of the United Nations.' The UN area would include nine out of 10 pre-war municipalities of the city - excluding Pale, the Bosnian Serb headquarters.

Mr Mills said Muslim, Serb and Croat delegates agreed to join a commission to examine the proposal. It will report today to the chairmen of the Geneva conference, Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg. The Bosnian government of President Alija Izetbegovic was said to favour the plan, provided that the city was not formally divided and that the government's sovereignty remained unquestioned. Lord Owen has indicated that no permanent solution for Sarajevo can be found, and has told the UN Security Council that a temporary arrangement must be reached.

The two-week interruption had been caused by a Serbian advance on to strategic heights overlooking the city. The Muslim government refused to negotiate until the Serbs withdrew. Eventually, the threat of Nato air strikes and a deal to send in UN monitors allowed the orderly withdrawal of Serb forces behind a line set by senior UN officers.

Commander Barry Frewer, a UN military spokesman in Sarajevo, caused a stir yesterday by suggesting that the city was not strictly under siege, since the Serbs were not seeking to capture it in its entirety and some relief supplies were continuing to get through. It was not a remark calculated to endear him to the people of Sarajevo - Bosnia's Vice-President, Ejup Ganic, demanded his recall by the UN - but it had a certain cold logic.

Snipers are less active, and Serbian forces camped around the Bosnian capital have not shelled it seriously for more than two weeks. People in central Sarajevo still go to sleep at night to a chorus of rifle, machine-gun and artillery fire, but the skirmishes are taking place well outside the centre, in the hills ringing the capital or in contested suburban districts.

Children play in the open air during the day, and their mothers make no attempt to pull them to the shelter of a doorway. Men and women ride bicycles or push makeshift wheelbarrows along the streets in places that were considered extremely vulnerable to sniper fire or artillery attack last year.

Even so, Sarajevo is a broken city. Burnt-out cars and vans are stacked against the walls of a Catholic church that serves as a charity distribution centre. A truck arrived yesterday bringing sacks of German food. Slowly, silently, people crept out of their homes into the sunlight to collect their aid. Some walked back past a gutted building which had once been a bread shop.

Bread is a rare commodity, like milk, eggs, sugar, butter, cheese, meat and potatoes. There are apples and pears, often rotten, but essentially the city's population - perhaps 200,000 now compared with 380,000 before the war - depends on UN supplies and smuggling. Winter is more than two months away, but already men are chopping down trees and storing the wood.