Sarajevo cut off as Serbs take UN hostage

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BOSNIAN Serbs, taking a tough line after rejecting a last-ditch peace plan, said yesterday that they were cutting off key routes for civilian traffic into Sarajevo and took hostage a United Nations aid official in Gorazde, in eastern Bosnia. Vital roads crossing the city's airport would be closed to non-UN traffic from today 'until further notice', Jovan Zametica, spokesman for the Bosnian Serb leadership, said in the Serbian stronghold of Pale, just outside the city.

The Bosnian Serbs have hardened their stance in an apparent test of the big powers, which are contemplating punitive measures against the Serbs after their refusal to accept the latest peace plan. The Muslim Prime Minister of Bosnia, Haris Silajdzic, condemned the move. 'We are aware of the situation and we think they are trying to cut off the city and kill the peace process,' he said in Sarajevo.

Closing the lifeline airport roads, which opened in March, seemed likely to panic residents in the capital and cause food prices to rocket. 'Fuel trucks, buses carrying civilians and private automobiles will stop. It's a major step backwards,' a UN source in Sarajevo said. Mr Silajdzic and the Muslim President of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic, were due to meet the UN commanders for urgent talks on the matter last night.

The UN also said Serbs around the UN-protected 'safe area' of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia took hostage the local head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' operations, his driver and a Muslim interpreter. 'They are holding these people hostage to exchange them for a Serb family inside Gorazde,' it said. The UN military could not immediately say where the three were taken hostage, where they were held or what Serbian family was involved.

Against this backdrop, the Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, and the special envoy, Vitaly Churkin, met Serbian leaders in Belgrade yesterday in an attempt to rescue the peace plan.

The Russian Defence Minister rejected a suggestion by the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, that UN forces should pull out of former Yugoslavia, whether or not a peace settlement was reached in Bosnia. Speaking in Belgrade, he said that Russia would not permit Nato to replace the 35,000-strong UN Protection Force (Unprofor) in former Yugoslavia, because the Western alliance was not a peace-keeping organisation.

Mr Boutros-Ghali caused consternation among UN Security Council members on Monday when he recommended in a letter that Unprofor should withdraw from former Yugoslavia and hand over peace-keeping responsibilities to an international task force, to be created by the so-called 'contact group' comprising the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Germany. 'It was completely out of the blue. The reaction in the Security Council was one of considerable alarm,' New Zealand's UN ambassador, Colin Keating, said.

Although Mr Boutros-Ghali did not specifically propose that Nato should replace Unprofor in former Yugoslavia, Mr Grachev chose to put that interpretation upon the Secretary-General's letter. 'The UN Security Council is now in a state of shock. Nato is not a peace-keeping organisation. Only Unprofor can fulfil the mission in Bosnia,' Mr Grachev said.

US officials said that any decision on withdrawing Unprofor would be taken by the Security Council, not by Mr Boutros-Ghali.

Both Western countries and Russia fear the withdrawal of Unprofor could provoke a wider Balkan war, and pitch the West and Moscow into confrontation.