Guarded welcome by a cautious Sarajevo

Balkans peace negotiations
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EMMA DALY

Sarajevo

"Don't knows" heavily outnumbered those with a view on the Bosnian Serbs' decision to withdraw some weapons from around Sarajevo and allow access to aid, as local media yesterday made no mention of the deal.

But in the front-line suburb of Dobrinja, where the shell-scarred buildings of the 1984 Olympic village overlook the UN-controlled airport and an air of sullen fear pervades normal life, an unseasonal optimism flourished.

''It's fantastic,'' said Medzed Muzaferija, blasting out the radio jingle for his four shops as a lorry carrying food and sports goods rolled past on its way from the airport to the city. ''Costs are plummeting, and the time has come that we can finally live normally again.'' As he spoke, a convoy of white United Nations aid trucks rolled past in a cloud of choking dust.

''That means the end of the siege,'' said Davor Nikolic, as a huge Russian Ilyushin thundered by on the runway. ''Together with planes we expect gas, power and water.''

But the question of restoring utilities to the city, cut for four months, was not addressed in the agreement signed by Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the political and military authors of the siege.

Aldin, who was chatting to Mr Nikolic, was less enthusiastic. ''I've listened to planes landing all my life,'' he said. ''That plane delivered humanitarian aid, but I don't know if the day will come when we will be able to fly out of Sarajevo freely.'' Most citizens were cautiously pleased to hear that the Serbs had agreed to remove some of their heavy weapons - guns larger than 100mm, mortars over 82mm - but afraid to hope for more than an end to the shelling.

''I have faith but just a little bit,'' said Amela Sijaric, 18. ''It's taken too long. I was 14 when this war began. I don't remember what it is like to go to the seaside. Every time they say something is going to get better, but it always gets worse.''

This time they did not say anything - at least, the government ''they'' - until late yesterday afternoon, when local radio broadcast a fairly hostile official statement: ''The suggestions of the aggressors to Nato are an attempt to bypass the ultimatum [which originally demanded the removal of all heavy weapons]. The Bosnian delegation hopes that Nato will refuse the suggestions. All enemy weapons of calibres of more than 12.7 must be removed.''

UN officials in Sarajevo have written to Gen Mladic asking him to withdraw all guns larger than 76mm, and all anti-aircraft guns and mortars; the Serb response was, not unexpectedly, that any such change would have to be agreed in a new round of talks.

Suzana Golic, a young woman drinking in a crowded cafe in the town centre, shared the government's reservations. ''Only artillery over 100mm will be pulled back,'' she said, proving that everyone in the city has become a weapons expert. ''I'm more afraid of the 60mm and 82mm mortars than the bigger guns anyway, so this doesn't help at all.''

A US official familiar with the talks acknowledged that the deal was not perfect: ''Mladic bent over, he said he'd never agree [to move any weapons] and he did. It's not perfect compliance but it gets back to where the city is relatively open city. But the siege is not over.''

Smaller mortars, which are portable and easy to hide, along with anti- aircraft guns, have wrought great damage in the city.

But UN officials, bowing to what they see as an inevitable compromise, argue that with the deployment on Mt Igman of the well-armed Rapid Reaction Force, any Serb attempt to fire on the city can be swiftly and fatally punished.

''In percentage terms, under the present calibration terms, about two- thirds of the weapons go,'' said one officer. Demanding that all be withdrawn, he said, ''would totally remove the threat'' to civilians in the city, but even with the compromise, the risk of shelling has been seriously reduced.

''I don't care if the Chetniks [rebel Serbs] stay in the hills - after three or four years we're used to it,'' Enes Mehmedic said wryly. ''I think this means an end to the shelling - I don't know about the war.''

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