Bosnians agree to free Serb prisoners

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The Independent Online
CHRISTOPHER BELLAMY

Tuzla

The Bosnian government showed signs yesterday of softening its demand for information on thousands of people who are missing and presumed dead in Serb-held areas of Bosnia.

The Muslim-led government had refused to release Bosnian Serb prisoners unless it learnt the fate of the missing.

Although some Serb and Croat prisoners have been set free, about 600 detainees from all three factions still await release, which should have taken place by last Friday under the Dayton agreement. But yesterday the US human rights envoy, John Shattuck, said after talks in Sarajevo with President Alija Izetbegovic: "I was assured by the President that he will continue to release prisoners."

This followed a warning by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, that Bosnia could lose US aid to rebuild its army and repair war damage.

The International Red Cross, which is responsible for overseeing the release of prisoners of war, and the peace implementation force, I-For, insists that the release of prisoners must be unconditional. But the Bosnian government has insisted on using the Serb prisoners as a bargaining counter, contrary to international humanitarian law.

The peace agreement continues to hold. In the British-controlled sector, two Bosnian military police vehicles have been seized in the 4km-wide zone of separation straddling the ceasefire line and weapons have been confiscated.

On Monday the Bosnian government army in Travnik told the British liaison officer they were going to test some 105mm and 122mm artillery rounds. Under the peace agreement, they have to give five days' notice for such firings. According to a British spokesman, the liaison officer raised a "red card" but the Bosnian corps said the ammunition had been manufactured at a local factory and that the Dayton provisions therefore did not apply.

Whereas the area overrun by the Bosnian Croats in September is almost deserted and shows the signs of recent devastation, the area which has been returned to Bosnian government control appears less badly damaged, and yesterday local people were out walking and children were playing.

But the former battle fronts are mainly quiet. Large areas formerly controlled by the Bosnian Serbs and recaptured in the final phase of the war are now open to traffic from the Muslim-Croat federation and the UN, and from I-For, which enjoys freedom of movement over the whole country.

The government has also re-established control over a tarmac road running across the wild and desolate Ozren district, dramatically improving access to the big city of Tuzla, which for years could be reached only over a tortuous mountain route. Along the strategic highway, new road signs have sprouted, pointing to Tuzla. They appear to be a proclamation of victory, as much as information.

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