Bosnia: Mladic agrees to withdraw from hills: Bosnian Serb military leader demands guarantees to prevent Muslims retaking two strategic mountains overlooking Sarajevo

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THE BOSNIAN Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, backed down in the face of a threat of Western air strikes last night and agreed to withdraw Serbian forces from two strategic mountains overlooking Sarajevo.

It was not clear if the Serbs would withdraw all their forces from Mt Igman or only a part. It was equally unclear whether the UN was intending to maintain a permanent presence on the mountain or merely make a series of sorties.

The agreement was announced last night after a five-hour meeting at Sarajevo airport with the UN Force commander in Bosnia, General Francis Briquemont, and the commander of the Muslim-led Bosnian army, Rasim Delic.

The UN said an agreement had been reached on the 'phased withdrawal' of Bosnian Serb forces from Mt Igman and Mt Bjelasnica, and their replacement by UN peace-keepers. The first phase will be joint patrols by UN and Bosnia Serb forces on the two mountains, starting today, followed by the gradual withdrawal of the Serbs from the peaks.

General Mladic said he has asked the UN chief to take special care that the pulling-back of Serb forces was not followed by the return of Muslim forces to the contested area. 'We will only withdraw if we are fully guaranteed that the other side do not come back,' he said.

The UN chief appeared to agree. 'No side will be allowed to take advantage of the agreement,' he said. General Briquemont dismissed the main Muslim demand for the Serbs to withdraw to the ceasefire line before the 30 July offensive against Sarajevo. 'We must deal with facts on the ground and not ceasefire lines.'

The terms of the deal fell well short of the minimum demand set by the Bosnian government. It is not clear whether they will be sufficient to induce Bosnia's Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic to the negotiating table. General Delic showed his anger with the agreement by abandoning the meeting at Sarajevo airport one hour before it ended.

Mr Izetbegovic has announced that his participation in a new round of peace talks in Geneva, planned for today, is conditional on the Serbs withdrawing from the two mountains. Yesterday he said he had seen no evidence of a Serbian withdrawal.

While the commanders of the warring armies met at Sarajevo airport, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic from his Pale headquarters made a fresh offer to open two roads into Sarajevo for unrestricted humanitarian convoys. The proposed routes would lead south- west to Konjic, and east to Zenica.

The Serbs seized the two mountains in a lightning campaign last week. The fresh danger to the security of Sarajevo brought the topic of Western air strikes against the Serbs back on to the agenda and derailed the Geneva peace talks, which are now at a critical phase.

Earlier the UN in Sarajevo dismissed a reported Serbian withdrawal from the two mountains as a publicity stunt. A couple of Serbian tanks noisily rumbled down the hillside from Mt Igman. Bosnian Serb leaders said it was proof they were honouring a promise to withdraw.

UN officials in Sarajevo dismissed the performance as pure theatre. 'There is no evidence of a serious withdrawal. The Serbs are consolidating in the area,' said Commander Barry Frewer, the UN spokesman in Sarajevo. 'I can only trust that this was clever stage management.' There is no doubt that the Serbs are rattled by US threats to neutralise some of their 1,400 pieces of heavy artillery stationed on hillsides around Sarajevo, and it is this fear which has prompted Serbian concessions.

Fearful of air strikes, they seem ready to withdraw from the strategic mountains. At the same time they want to set the rules. They know the UN's ability to monitor events on Mt Igman is slight. Until now the UN has deployed two observers to oversee Serbian actions in the area. In UN-brokered talks on Mt Igman last week, the Serbs said they would pull out, but set conditions that were unacceptable to the Muslims.