Bosnia crisis: US envoy Richard Holbrooke tries to patch up the Dayton deal, but sparks a row with his European partners

War crimes row cuts Nato ties with Serbs
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Diplomatic Editor

The ground commander of Nato's peace-keepers in Bosnia, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Walker, said yesterday that the alliance had lost high-level contact with the Bosnian Serb army, which has cut off ties with Nato until it wins the release of two senior officers held by the Bosnian government on suspicion of having committed war crimes.

International efforts to avert the worst threat to the Dayton peace accord gathered pace yesterday, with Richard Holbrooke, the US Assistant Secretary of State who was the main architect of the agreement, saying in Budapest that he would travel to Sarajevo, Belgrade and Zagreb to deal with "serious challenges" to the pact. In London, Nato's Secretary-General, Javier Solana, said he expected the crisis to be resolved within days.

Intensive contacts were in progress between Nato and Serbia, which signed the Dayton peace agreement on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs. "I would make an appeal to all the parties to be calm and to work together," said Mr Solana, "but that doesn't mean that we shall only be making appeals." Mr Holbrooke echoed his tone, saying the US would not tolerate threats being made by the Bosnian Serbs.

The Bosnian Serb leadership itself appeared divided on the issue, with civilian officials in Sarajevo ignoring a ban on free movement across the front line imposed on Thursday by General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb army chief indicted for war crimes.

"We have a number of liaison officers who are in the Bosnian Serb military, with whom we inevitably have contact, but in terms of the high-level strategic- type contact that we had with them, there is none," said Gen Walker, commander of Nato's Peace Implementation Force (I-For). He described it as "an ominous sign ... that's in direct breach of the compliance" with the Dayton agreement.

However, there seemed to be some confusion among Nato officials about contacts with the Serbs since Gen Mladic's statement on Thursday that all ties with I-For would be severed. Two Nato sources said a senior Serb general, Zdravko Tolimir, had subsequently been in touch with I-For, while a third official said Gen Tolimir had written to Gen Walker. This last report was denied by another official.

Yesterday, the prime minister of Republika Srpska, the Serb entity in Bosnia, was quoted as saying his government would talk both to the military and civilian wings of the international mission. "We will continue talks with Bildt's office [Carl Bildt is the senior civilian official] and with I-For, but we cannot continue further talks with the Muslim-Croat federation until our officers ... are freed," Ratko Kazagic said.

One official who visited the 10 Serbs detained by the Bosnian government, said the men seemed in good shape. Gen Djordje Djukic, the most senior of those arrested, seemed to be in good health, though clearly not happy about his arrest on 30 January by Bosnian police and his detention as a suspected war criminal.

The international war crimes tribunal is investigating the allegations and has asked the government to hold the two until it decides whether to charge them.

It is still unclear how Gen Djukic strayed across the line; the Bosnian Serbs claimed first that he was on his way to a meeting with Nato, then that he was lured across for talks with the government. The Bosnian story is that his car took a wrong turn. The official said that the general's driver, a young conscript, had requested political asylum and sought to remain on the government side of the line.

Although Gen Mladic ordered Serbs not to cross the front-line into federation territory - which mostly happens around Sarajevo - the senior Serb official in the capital refused to stop such crossings. "The border will not be closed," Maksim Stanisic told Reuters.

Gen Mladic's ban was violated by at least 108 Serbs, who crossed the bridge of Brotherhood and Unity in central Sarajevo yesterday.

"There were fewer crossing today than yesterday, and fewer yesterday than the day before," a Bosnian policeman at the bridge said. He said the numbers crossing had halved in the past five days.