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Goodwill for Bosnia as generals hold talks

As a four-month ceasefire went into effect yesterday, the generals who have fought each other so hard across the front lines of Bosnia began the New Year at the table, to start negotiating the details of an agreement to end hostilities that may br ing peace to Bosnia in 1995.

"The difficult part is about to begin," the United Nations commander, Lt-Gen Sir Michael Rose, said before chairing the four-hour meeting. But afterwards it was said to have been "positive and businesslike".

The Joint Commission - the chiefs of staff of the Bosnian army, the separatist Serb forces and the UN - meeting on neutral ground at Sarajevo airport, set in motion the creation of lower-level regional commissions. These will be charged with the contentious tasks of mapping confrontation lines, considering how to separate the warring factions, and where to deploy UN monitors.

"It was rather positive," Lt-Col Gary Coward, a UN spokesman in Sarajevo, said after the meeting. "We've seen and heard good intent over the past 10 to 12 days. Tomorrow is the test - the opportunity to provide tangible evidence" of that good will.

Several clauses in the agreement signed on New Year's Eve could be implemented at once. The parties should, for example, "immediately" re-open to civilian traffic the "blue routes" across Sarajevo airport; respect the demilitarised zone on Mount Igman, west of the city; and grant complete freedom of movement for UN convoys.

"There have been many ceasefires," Yasushi Akashi, the UN envoy, said as he left Sarajevo yesterday after witnessing the signatories to the deal. "But this is the first time that we have a cessation of hostilities agreement as well. I hope that we are turning a very important corner in this most tragic conflict in Europe since the Second World War."

His optimism was echoed by Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, who announced: "It is the beginning of the end of this war. We welcome it, and we are ready to negotiate in good faith and to terminate this conflict, and to find long-lasting, stable,peaceful solutions."

Mr Akashi said the five-nation Contact Group, whose peace plan is still the basis for a settlement in Bosnia, would marshal a new round of political talks within a couple of weeks. This is the forum where a peace settlement - if one is possible - will befound. The Serbs, who rejected the group's plan repeatedly last summer, were now ready for talks, according to their commander, General Ratko Mladic. "The time has come," he said, "for the guns to fall silent and for diplomacy to speak up."

There was no need to watch the clock on New Year's Eve; at the stroke of midnight the clatter of gunfire erupted across the city, as anyone with a weapon and a little spare ammunition rang in the new with a barrage of bullets. There was no celebratory artillery this year because of the 20km heavy weapons exclusion zone around Sarajevo, only an occasional explosion.

With the usual 10pm curfew suspended for the holiday - the most popular in the calendar of a multi-faith city - and perhaps the hope of peace in 1995, Sarajevans party-hopped through the unfriendly fireworks, visiting friends and relatives and strangers.New Year's Day blew in bleak and blustery, suitable for nursing hangovers and patching up wounds.

One French soldier was hit in the groin on Saturday night in Sarajevo. "He was wounded, probably by a stray bullet. He was very lucky," said Major Herve Gourmelon, a UN spokesman. "They took out the bullet, and today he's perfectly OK."

He was not the only French peace-keeper to have had a narrow escape: two soldiers stationed in an observation post at Sarajevo airport on Saturday afternoon were startled to find their post shunted along by the nose of an Ilyushin cargo plane that ran off the end of the runway. Nobody was hurt in the accident, although the runway is closed to large planes while the UN investigates and moves the Ilyushin carcass. The airport was expected to reopen this morning.

In Belgrade, thousands of people formed a human chain around the headquarters of Borba, Serbia's only major independent newspaper, yesterday to protest government efforts to control the daily, one of its journalists said.

The rally, called by an association of independent journalists, lasted around an hour, and more demonstrations are planned for the next few days, the journalist said.