Serb bodies found mutilated

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FRENCH peace-keepers yesterday morning discovered the corpses of 16 Bosnian Serb soldiers and four female nurses, apparently the victims of a surprise attack by Bosnian government forces near a demilitarised zone south-west of Sarajevo.

Yasushi Akashi, the United Nations chief, met Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian President, yesterday afternoon to discuss the issue, amid fears that the incident could jeopardise an agreement to reopen Sarajevo airport. Mr Akashi told reporters that many of the bodies had been mutilated, burnt and disfigured, a fact that has enraged the Bosnian Serbs.

'This criminal act by the Muslim side has made Sarajevo a tinderbox which can ignite the whole area,' the Bosnian Serbs' 'Romania' Corps, which surrounds the capital, said in a statement.

The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said UN peace-keepers had failed to prevent Bosnian government troops from violating every disengagement agreement in Bosnia's war. 'This may influence us to decide to ask the UN to leave our country,' he said last night.

The Bosnian army apparently launched an infantry attack on enemy forces, backed by artillery, by moving through a demilitarised zone around Mt Igman. French troops patrolling the area saw fighting early this morning, and found the bodies this afternoon. 'In all probability the Bosnian government side may have been implicated, although we do not have direct evidence to that effect,' Mr Akashi told reporters.

A UN spokesman said General Sir Michael Rose, the UN commander in Bosnia, was likely to meet General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander, to discuss the incident. Mr Akashi urged self- restraint on the warring parties. 'I very much hope that the repercussions of this tragedy would not be detrimental to the peace process,' he said. It is perhaps an optimistic hope; the mood in Pale, the Bosnian Serb headquarters, was ugly enough even before this incident. The past two weeks have been marked by increased tension and much shooting around Sarajevo and the paralysis of UN aid operations. Mr Akashi and the UN force commander, General Bertrand de Lapresle, held six hours of talks in Pale on Wednesday, winning a grudging promise that the Bosnian Serbs would suspend their threat to shoot down planes landing in Sarajevo and allow the airport to reopen.

At that meeting, Mr Karadzic, complained of Bosnian government attacks to Mr Akashi. SRNA, the Bosnian Serb news agency, yesterday said Pale was considering whether to retaliate. 'Serbs are for the moment refraining from responding, but we will soon review whether to launch a counter-offensive,' Mr Karadzic was quoted as saying. According to the Bosnian Serbs a Muslim sabotage unit attacked the Trnovo battalion on Mount Bjelasnica, near Igman. The bodies were returned to Serbian forces.

UN officials fear Pale may renege on the airport agreement, which was considered fragile. Mr Akashi said he hoped the deal would still be honoured, but admitted dark clouds had been cast over the process. The Bosnian Serbs closed the airport after the last Nato air strike, and have since blocked almost all aid convoys as a sign of their displeasure. The mood at the meeting, said one UN official, was grim; General Mladic told Mr Akashi his troops would launch attacks on the UN if Nato jets bombed again. General de Lapresle issued his own warning, saying that any further use of missiles against Nato jets would bring swift and severe retribution. Mr Akashi also said that as Pale was isolated from the world and its former mentors in Belgrade, its only hope of contact came through the UN. If the peace-keepers were forced to withdraw, the Bosnian Serbs would be alone.

The airport deal came as the warring factions exchanged 295 prisoners of war across a front-line bridge in Sarajevo, an achievement hailed by Mr Akashi.