Bosnian elections hit by further delay

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Municipal elections in Bosnia were postponed for a second time yesterday in what looked like a setback for Western efforts to prevent the partition of the former Yugoslav republic. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which supervised last month's Bosnian general elections, blamed "political difficulties in all areas of the country" for the postponement from next month until an unspecified date next spring.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent monitoring organisation, said that the OSCE was right to delay the vote because war criminals were still at large, hardly any refugees had returned home and there was not enough freedom of movement in Bosnia. Even worse, houses belonging to Muslims in Serb-held areas are being blown up almost every day to deter their owners from returning.

The municipal elections could potentially be a basis for rebuilding the multi-national communities that made up Bosnia before 1992. However, it is precisely that prospect which has infuriated Bosnian Serb and Croat nationalists, who are determined to split Bosnia into rigid national zones.

The OSCE ruled last week that people were to vote only in municipalities where they had lived before the war. This raised the possibility that hundreds of thousands of Muslims, driven out of their homes during the war, would return to vote, thereby reversing or mitigating the effects of "ethnic cleansing".

Many Muslims loyal to President Alija Izetbegovic also favoured delaying the municipal polls. They say that up to 150,000 Muslim voters could be excluded from the elections because Bosnia's Muslim-Croat federation has not yet drawn up the boundaries of the new municipalities.

The postponement is the worst blow yet to the timetable for Bosnia's political reconstruction, set out in last year's Dayton peace agreement. A consequent extension of the OSCE's Bosnian mandate is likely to be agreed next month or in December.

The municipal elections, which had been due on 14 September, were delayed by international concerns that they would not be free or fair.