Bosnia Serbs vote no 'by 200 per cent'

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EARLY results from the two-day Bosnian Serb referendum suggested a decisive 'no' to the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina proposed by the big powers.

After polls closed at 7pm last night, Serbian officials claimed a high turn-out across the self-proclaimed 'Republika Srpska'. Bosnian Serbs living abroad - which includes rump Yugoslavia - also voted, with Serbs in Moscow reporting the first results.

According to Radio Pale, 235 votes were cast: 228 against the plan, six for and one spoilt ballot paper. 'This is an indication of the final result,' an election official said. The outcome is likely to be announced tomorrow.

The last-minute addition of refugees to the electoral registers allowed Radio Banja Luka to report a 200 per cent turn-out in the frontline town of Doboj. Polling station No 2 in the capital, Pale, managed a 180 per cent showing. 'I have twice as many votes as I expected. I think there are going to be 80 per cent more voters than we thought,' said Spaso Kovac, the official overseeing voting at the bar and duty-free shop in Pale. The final count there was 1,600 against and 15 in favour.

'I can predict the maps are going to be rejected but we are going to face major problems and we are aware of that,' said Momcilo Krajisnik, speaker of the Bosnian Serb assembly. The distant thud of artillery on the Vares front line was a reminder of the problems.

President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, who has blockaded his proteges to force them to a 'yes' vote, is under pressure to do more. Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, arrived in Belgrade last night to ask Mr Milosevic to accept international monitors on the border with Bosnia.

Before his departure from Moscow Mr Kozyrev said he wanted to reward Serbia for its stance on Bosnia by easing sanctions. 'We are no longer talking about toughening or imposing extra sanctions on Belgrade,' he said. 'The task is the opposite: to lift certain sanctions to show clearly to the Serbs that every step in the right direction by Belgrade will be met with a corresponding, positive reaction from the . . . world community.'

If Belgrade accepts monitors on the border with Bosnia, it would complete the Bosnian Serbs' isolation. The threat is welcome to the Bosnian Serbs, who say they are prepared to fight on alone for a state of their own. At present, 'Republika Srpska' consists of forests, farms and rocks, but it is Serbian. 'Have you seen Herzegovina?' asked Dusko, a soldier from Trebinje. 'Herzegovina is much worse than here. We don't even have trees, just stones. But these stones are more familiar to me than California or Florida could be . . . I dream of taking off this uniform but I will continue to wear it while it is necessary.' He added: 'Maybe it would be better with total war, because now there is no peace and no war. It is the only way.'

Any compromise, they say, will postpone a final solution. 'I would rather die in this war than let my children die in the next one, which would be much worse,' said Miroslav Toholj, the Bosnian Serb Minister of Information. 'Every soldier knows he is defending not his people but the future of his children . . . it means I would lay down my life as easily as you would light a cigarette.'

It is not clear that the international community will maintain its united stand. Officials in Pale privately scoff at the West's determination to force a political settlement. They doubt the sincerity of Mr Milosevic's actions. But they may yet be called upon yet to act on their bravado.

'Always look on the bright side of life,' sang Eric Idle and the Monty Python crew on Radio Banja Luka last night. It could be the Bosnian Serb anthem.