Serbs write another 'deal' in the sand: Besieging forces throw ceasefire agreement into disarray after UN commander brokers withdrawal from hills around Sarajevo

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THE United Nations Force commander in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, brokered an agreement with Bosnian Serbs and Muslim army commanders to begin the process of withdrawing Serbian siege guns from the hills around Sarajevo around noon today.

But within minutes of General Rose's dramatic announcement of the deal, Bosnian Serb leaders threw the whole undertaking into disarray. 'We agreed to an immediate ceasefire. But there is no precise agreement on demilitarisation,' said a senior Bosnian Serb official.

With Nato seriously considering scrambling its war planes in the aftermath of Saturday's massacre at a Sarajevo market, any deal leading to the withdrawal of Serbian heavy weapons from the area would undoubtedly relieve Western urgency to lift the siege of Sarajevo by force.

But when asked if the Bosnian Serb army would start the withdrawal process today as outlined by General Rose, the official reply was: 'No way. There is only an agreement in principle and besides none of our politicians participated in those negotiations, and they are the real commanders of our military.'

According to the deal General Rose cut with the Bosnian Serbs and Muslim army leaders at Sarajevo airport yesterday, there was to be an immediate ceasefire in and around the city, followed by the positioning of UN troops at key military installations, including Serbian artillery emplacements.

The heavy weapons, such as the 120mm mortars suspected of being responsible for Saturday's attack which killed 68 people, would be placed under UN control and then gradually withdrawn to sites chosen by UN peace-keepers.

'We've called upon them to implement this agreement immediately. But we think in realistic terms that by 12 noon local time tomorrow (Thursday) we should see full implementation,' General Rose told a press conference. He described the deal, which he said has the full backing of both sides' political leaders, as 'a small start to (solving) a very big problem'.

Following General Rose's press conference, the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, stressed that the withdrawal of the Serbian big guns was at the heart of yesterday's ceasefire agreement. He said that if the Serbs failed to start pulling back at noon, his government would consider the whole deal, including the ceasefire provisions, to be void.

Bosnia is a country littered with broken ceasefire agreements and other deals written in sand. Despite yesterday's pact with General Rose, and the growing threat of Western air strikes, the Serbs appear more determined than ever to hold their ground for as long as possible.

Before the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, left Belgrade yesterday to attend a new round of Geneva peace talks today, he was asked if he was prepared to accept the withdrawal of Serbian artillery from the hills around Sarajevo. He replied: 'Immediately after we sign peace.' He then repeated his longstanding assertion that Sarajevo was a divided city and that he could never agree to leaving Serbian-held areas of the city defenceless.

The Bosnian Serbs' new hard line in the face of the possibility of Western intervention is in direct contrast to previous Serbian posturing when confronted with foreign threats. On every occasion in the past, the Serbs would back down when threatened and use the time gained to regroup. But it now appears that after countless empty Western threats and in the light of divisions in Nato over the use of air power against the Serbs, the Bosnian Serb leadership is willing to call the international community's bluff. Asked if he believed in the latest threats of Nato air strikes, Mr Karadzic told reporters: 'I only believe in God.'

(Maps omitted)