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Bosnia refugees in poll limbo

Almost a million displaced people in Bosnia are unlikely to be able to return to their homes to vote in the country's elections, officials in Sarajevo said yesterday. The news reinforces fears that Bosnia's division into two parts may prove irreversible despite the best intentions of the Dayton agreement.

The director general of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Jeff Fischer, who is supervising the 14 September elections, suggested that if the displaced people were unable to return to their former homes, facilities might be provided elsewhere for them to vote for candidates in the areas that they had fled to. About 850,000 people, out of a total electorate of some 3 million, are displaced.

Mr Fischer's suggestions prompted speculation that alternative polling stations might be set up along the 600-mile border between the two entities in Bosnia, but senior officials were quick to play that down.

Senior sources in the OSCE and in the peace implementation force, I-For, said Bosnian voters would probably realise it was not in their interest to vote in, or for, areas where there was no chance they would live again. Muslims returning to a home in Srebrenica, a former Muslim town now in Republika Srpska, for example, would find no Muslim candidates. Similarly, Serbs returning to the Muslim-Croat federation would be unable to vote for Serb candidates.

The Dayton peace agreement endorsed the right to vote in one's former home area, but I-For has effectively admitted it cannot ensure the safe return of displaced persons. Officials are confident most people will vote from their present location.

Some observers in Sarajevo yesterday condemned the idea of giving up the right to return home, saying it enshrined the division of Bosnia. However, I-For sources believe the return of refugees to small isolated enclaves could restart the conflict.

Wherever the refugees cast their votes, on 14 September Bosnia will elect a three-person presidency, an all-Bosnia assembly, and separate assemblies for the Muslim-Croat federation and Republika Srpska. Voters will also elect a president for Republika Srpska, 10 cantonal assemblies for the federation, and about 150 local councils.

It is as if, on the same day, Britons voted for a new monarch, for assemblies in England, Scotland and Wales, for a monarch of Scotland, for deputies for 10 regional assemblies in England, and in local elections.