Sarajevo ceasefire may benefit the Serbs: Moscow's initiative could freeze situation to advantage of attackers

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RUSSIA'S initiative last night to secure the withdrawal of Bosnian Serb heavy weaponry from around Sarajevo is likely to prolong the United Nations-brokered ceasefire and deter Nato air attacks, but it is premature to predict the end of the siege of the Bosnian capital.

By sending troops to Sarajevo and helping the UN to interpose itself along Serbian and Muslim confrontation lines, the Russians could actually be freezing the military situation to the advantage of the Serbs.

Bosnia's Muslim-led government was already unhappy with the ceasefire, agreed on 9 February, on the grounds that while it had silenced the guns around Sarajevo, it had done little to end the 22-month- old Serbian grip on the city. The presence of Russian troops in and around Sarajevo will increase the Muslims' fears that the real motive behind Moscow's initiative was to block a Nato-led operation to break the siege.

The military picture in Sarajevo resembles events in Serb-conquered parts of Croatia, after UN peace- keeping forces went there in 1992 to patrol a ceasefire between Serbs and Croats. Two years on, the Serbs continue to occupy about 30 per cent of Croatia and, like the Muslims today, the Croats complain that the UN presence has worked to Serbian advantage alone.

Bosnia's UN representative, Muhamed Sacirbey, said that the UN's failure to take control of Serbian siege positions 'may have the unwitting effect of solidifying the unacceptable status quo and institutionalising the siege of Sarajevo'. Other officials point out that the Serbs have long hinted that they would like to partition Sarajevo into Muslim and Serbian sectors.

Even if the Serbs dropped this ambition, they could use their muscle around the city to extract a favourable overall Bosnian settlement. The Muslims suspect that, for all the apparent increase in Western pressure on the Serbs, the West will ultimately allow Bosnia's partition into three nationally based regions, just as the Serbs want.

Apart from observing the ceasefire, Serbian and Muslim forces have committed themselves to handing over heavy weaponry in the Sarajevo area to UN control by midnight on Sunday. Although the threat of Nato air strikes in the event of non-compliance hangs over both sides, the Serbs possess the bulk of this weaponry and in theory ought to have most to fear from the Western threat.

In practice, the Serbs are much happier than the Muslims with the way the UN has interpreted the terms of the ceasefire and handover of weapons.

'We are committed to fully respecting the Muslim-Serb agreement, and its provisions envisage control of heavy weaponry and demarcation of lines,' said Momcilo Krajisnik, the speaker of the Bosnian Serb assembly.

The reason for the Serbs' satisfaction appears to be that the UN has defined 'control' of heavy weaponry in a broad enough way for the Serbs to feel that their grip on Sarajevo has not seriously been weakened. The UN's definition amounts to an insistence that the weapons cannot be used to break the ceasefire, but this in itself does not end the Serbian siege.