Bosnian leader insists on co-existence: Izetbegovic: 'Serbs are not excluded from Bosnia-Herzegovina. We have lived together for 100 years'

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The Independent Online
THIS week's conference on Yugoslavia was being described by Western politicians yesterday as a diplomatic triumph. But Alija Izetbegovic, the President of Bosnia, remained unconvinced.

Speaking before he flew back to Sarajevo yesterday - where the fighting continued, as fiercely as ever - the Bosnian leader said he had little hope that the wide-ranging agreements announced at the London conference on Thursday night would be adhered to.

In an exclusive interview with the Independent, Mr Izetbegovic said: 'Some new ideas were accepted - but there's a shortage of guarantees.' The Serbs have said that they will close detention camps and will put heavy weaponry under United Nations control. But, Mr Izetbegovic said: 'Frankly speaking, I don't trust Mr Karadzic (the leader of the Bosnian Serbs).'

The Bosnian leader renewed his calls for Western military intervention as the only solution if the guarantees are not adhered to. 'We don't ask for ground troops. We don't even want to have ground troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But we need air and naval support. The aggressor isn't stopping the attacks. If the aggressor breaks the obligations stated in the documents of the conference, I think that some kind of military action will be necessary.'

Mr Izetbegovic said that he was more optimistic after the London conference - the largest ever set of talks on Yugoslavia - than before. He praised the joint chairing of the conference by John Major, the Prime Minister, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary- General. He expressed appreciation, too, of the measures that have been agreed - including a possible ban on military flights in Bosnian airspace.

He said he was pleased, too, that the implementation of sanctions is to be toughened, but added: 'Generally, the world has not had good experience with sanctions.' The presence of the UN Secretary-General in London was, he said, a sign of hope. He argued, too, that the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, should feel under pressure. 'If I were Mr Milosevic, I wouldn't be relaxed.'

Mr Izetbegovic acknowledged that he has sometimes been unduly optimistic, in the past. As the violence in Bosnia began, in March, the headline to a cover- story interview in Danas, a leading Zagreb magazine, read: 'Izetbegovic: 'There Won't Be a War'.' Did the Bosnian leader now think that he had been nave, to hold that view?

'I was saying that there would be no war, because I knew that it would be horrible. I will be honest. I didn't expect the SDS (the party of Radovan Karadzic) to wage this war. I was sure they would lose it.' (That view, it must be said, was not shared by Mr Karadzic himself. Sitting in his office in Sarajevo, back in May 1991, he had told me confidently: 'If there is a civil war, Serbs will gain victory.' Some believe that Mr Karadzic's self-confidence has been amply justified by the past few months.)

But Mr Izetbegovic insisted that, taking a broader historical sweep, he would be proved right. 'They made a historic error. Never again will Serbs in the Balkans have what they used to have. They've lost the political battle. And how can they win a battle which is lost politically?'

He insisted that a shared Bosnia, with guarantees for all nationalities, could be regained. Slav Muslims are the single largest group in Bosnia, with 44 per cent of the population; Serbs are 32 per cent, and Croats 17 per cent. Mr Izetbegovic insisted that co-existence was still possible. 'Serbs are not excluded from Bosnia-Herzegovina. We have lived together for 100 years. In the present government of 19 ministers, six are Serbs.'

The Bosnian leader declared that the idea that Bosnia could be divided up into ethnic regions was impracticable. 'It's impossible, without ethnic cleansing, like Radovan Karadzic has done.' Bosnia, he said, was much too mixed to undergo simple divisions. 'Our ethnic map is intermingled, like a painting by Jackson Pollock. There are no ethnically pure regions.'

The Bosnian leader rejected allegations that the Bosnian government forces have been shelling their own people, in order to gain favourable international publicity. General Lewis MacKenzie, the former UN commander in Sarajevo, publicly suggested as much, while still in Sarajevo, though without being specific; since then, other UN officials have privately repeated the claim, adding considerable detail. The UN officials suggested that the Bosnians had, for example, pre-arranged an explosion at the site of a bread queue in Sarajevo in May, which killed 16 people and was blamed on the Serbs.

Mr Izetbegovic responded to the UN allegations only by saying that the burden of proof rested on the accuser. He complained that General MacKenzie had not put the allegations to him personally when still in Sarajevo, and called upon UN officials to put their names publicly to the new accusations. As we parted, however, the previously soft-spoken Mr Izetbegovic suddenly returned with passion to the subject, as though unbottling emotions that he had previously kept in check.

'Hundreds and thousands of shells have fallen on us. Why should we prove anything by shelling ourselves? Why should we prove something which has been proved already? One hundred times it has been proved that they have shelled civilians, why should we do it for the 101st time? They have shelled the hospitals 70 times. Is it necessary to shell ourselves for the 71st time, in order to make a big show?'

Leading article, page 14

(Photograph omitted)

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