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Besieged city plays the waiting game

SARAJEVAN DOUBTS; Bosnia in turmoil: Sarajevo wonders whether Serbs have `got the message', while British Foreign Secretary is upbeat on prospects for settlement


It has been a week of wild mood swings in Sarajevo: horror at the carnage near the market last Monday, where bodies shattered by a Serb mortar bomb lay scattered along the main street, followed by euphoria at the Nato air raids on Wednesday morning and bitter disappointment at the pause in the bombing campaign over the weekend.

Yesterday Sarajevans were waiting to see whether General Ratko Mladic, commander of the rebel Serbs besieging them, would bow to international pressure and withdraw - or, if not, whether Nato would bomb their enemies again.

So numbed are the city's inhabitants by three years of disappointment that they have found it difficult to accept their situation might be changing. "Most people still can't believe this is really happening ... '' said Amra, a young Sarajevan. "On the night the Nato jets went into action my father tried to wake us all, but we just would not listen to him."

The roar of jets flying low overhead, followed by a shattering roar yesterday afternoon, prompted speculation that the raids had begun early. "I heard one big detonation," said Amra. "My father thinks it was a plane breaking the sound-barrier, but I think the jets were in action." Her father was right.

"There is a Bosnian saying, like `much ado about nothing'," said Maja, a young woman walking past the table, loaded with flowers, commemorating the 38 victims of the Serb bomb which triggered the Nato raids. ``There will be a lot of showing off, but nothing will happen."

She was clearly torn by the prospect of new raids. "I can't be glad about the air strikes, because a lot of people died here as well as on the other side," she said, then added: "It should have been done earlier." Maja was not born a sceptic, she said: "That's the result of war."

Hasib Tahirovic, a merchant drafted as a soldier, was hopeful but ambivalent. "My feeling is that better times are coming, because the US has taken a leading role in the Bosnian tragedy and somehow it must impose peace." But, he added, "Mladic knows precisely what he has to do and when, so if he has not moved the weapons it means he has not got the message - or it was not strong enough."

Sarajevo was quiet yesterday, and shoppers saw immediate benefits from the opening of a road across the airport, which enables Bosnian civilians and commercial trucks to drive into the city. Prices fell overnight, a boost in a city where residents scrape by on donations from family abroad, relatives with UN jobs or they sell whatever possessions are left to buy food.

"The Serbs probably won't listen to the ultimatum but Nato will hit them hard," one man said. "All the recent moves - the US peace process, the Nato raids - have been very positive. And high time too."

And even if the guns are silenced and the blue routes opened, as the UN has demanded, life will still be grim without water, electricity, gas or the right to move freely in and out of the city.

"This week has brought a mixture of good and bad - but it's the bad things that stick in my memory," said Semra Rovcanin, who runs a cafe 30 yards from the crater left by the fatal shell last Monday. "I don't know what will happen now," she said wearily. But did she hold out hope of any further help from the international community? "No - it would be hard to believe in that."