Enemies meet Sarajevo pull-out deadline

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The Independent Online


Torrential rain and relentless snow dampened French and American spirits in Bosnia yesterday, but Nato commanders expressed delight at the success of the first peace deadline at midnight on Wednesday: the withdrawal of enemy troops from front-line positions around Sarajevo.

As President Bill Clinton lifted US sanctions against Serbia to reward its co-operation in the Dayton peace agreement, Brigadier-General Louis Zeller, commander of Nato's I-For (Implementation Force) troops in Sarajevo, said at a press conference in the snow on the notorious Vrbanja bridge: "Today in Sarajevo the first phase of the peace agreement . . . was respected." The operation "was conducted with concern for even-handedness and strict impartiality and, one must emphasise, the collaboration of the parties".

There was little to celebrate along other Bosnian river-banks. In Mostar and Zupanja, where French and US troops are based, flash-floods tore through I-For camps, damaging vehicles and other equipment but causing no casualties. Helicopters lifted 62 Foreign Legionnaires to safety from a riverside camp north of Mostar, where a dam burst and floods closed the main road to Sarajevo for 24 hours.

In Zupanja, on the Sava river border with Croatia, US Army engineers trying to install pontoon bridges to bring across American tanks and troops were evacuated overnight when their camp was flooded.

On Wednesday night a Croatian soldier loosed off 30 rifle rounds close to the US camp, but the incident was played down as a burst of celebratory Christmas fire. Most shooting in Bosnia since Nato's arrival has come under the heading of "happy fire", but commanders have warned the parties to stop such ill-discipline.

US officers insisted the floods would not defeat them, but the weather is almost certain to delay further the US deployment to the northern city of Tuzla, which got off to a bad start when flights were delayed for five days by fog. US troops reached Tuzla from Serbia for the first time yesterday, however, crossing the Drina River border without problems, and 26,000 of the expected 60,000 Nato troops are now in Bosnia.

Admiral Leighton Smith, the US commander of I-For, was ebullient yesterday, citing excellent progress to date. "I want to capitalise on that, I want to build on the momentum," he said - though he acknowledged that the first peace deadline, requiring both sides to pull back from 40 positions around Sarajevo within seven days of Nato's arrival, came during a honeymoon period.

"It's real easy - it's easy to verify, it's close to home and it's early in the game," he said. "We're going to know in the next three months if we've got an agreement." None the less, he was astonished by accomplishments to date - particularly the immediate deployment of British I-For troops in Serb-held territory. "That's amazing," he said. "I thought it would be months before anyone would start talking about putting headquarters anywhere in Bosnian Serb territory."

Nato plans to move one of its army headquarters from central Sarajevo to Ilidza, a western suburb due to revert from Serb to government control next year - to the consternation of its Serb residents. The I-For presence, Admiral Smith said, would help to reassure Serbs planning to abandon their homes and head into exile.

"If you are going to move and you have no place to go, staying has got to be better than going if you have I-For," he said. But he admitted: "I can't guarantee the security of every family and every individual." Nor could his forces end the looting of machinery and other equipment by Serbs leaving the area.

The Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, saying the "bitter and cold peace" of Dayton offered hope for 1996, yesterday reiterated his government's suggestion that Serbs in the five suburbs remain in their homes - but did nothing new to calm fears that the government will seek revenge upon those who besieged the city for so long.

"I consider this war to be over," he said in a New Year address to reporters and members of the ruling SDA party. "It will take generations to forget those who attacked us and the beating we received. I don't think they will dare to raise their hands again . . . that's why I'm confident this is the introduction to a durable and lasting peace."

Sarajevo Diary, page 13

Jonathan Eyal, page 15