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Harsh winter keeps uneasy peace in place

Bosnia is in the grip of the coldest winter Central Europe has known this century. But British observers are worried that when spring comes, the return of refugees from abroad and attempts to return displaced persons to their former homes will spark unrest.

Whether to press for the return of displaced persons or to accept the de facto division of the country is "the biggest question the international community has to face in 1997", according to the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, who visited Bosnia at the weekend.

Although the Dayton peace agreement of November 1995 painted a picture of a return to different religious and cultural groups living side by side, officers in the 31,000-strong stabilisation force (S-For) believe that it might bring about a return to violence.

"You could argue we are deliberately provoking the next conflict by imposing a return to the circumstances that led to the last one," a senior officer in the British sector said. "I suspect it will be the large-scale return of refugees here that may displace the situation." Displaced persons - DPs - are also referred to as the "Dayton paradox".

In addition, the return of refugees who have been abroad and drawing large benefit payments, especially in Germany, is expected to spark resentment. Refugees in Germany have been getting about pounds 16,000 a year - vastly more than their compatriots who stayed in Bosnia.

The clearest example of what could happen when DPs return to their former homes in Bosnia occurred last November, when 250 Muslim refugees at Brcko in northern Bosnia - including armed, demobilised Bosnian army soldiers - tried to cross into Serb territory. They exchanged fire with the Serbs, and United States and Russian troops had to get between them and keep them apart - later disarming an entire brigade, confiscating thousands of weapons.

Although S-For can prevent outbreaks of fighting, there is concern that the local parties are dragging their feet in implementing the Dayton peace agreement. Mr Portillo said the "conditionality" stressed at the recent London conference - withholding aid if the locals did not play their part - was needed to concentrate minds. In Banja Luka, he told Serb journalists: "It is easier to telephone from London to Sydney than it is from Banja Luka to Sarajevo. That is unacceptable." He said restoring telephone links was technically easy and that the locals were just being difficult.

There has also been widespread intimidation, including that of one faction by another within the Muslim community in Bihac. There has been political intimidation in Banja Luka itself and ethnic intimidation by Serbs and Croats in Jajce.

The police are still a cause of concern for S-For peacekeepers. The new President of Republika Srpska, Biljana Plavsic, is understood to have achieved control over the Bosnian-Serb army from her base in Banja Luka but the police are still partly dominated by Radovan Karadzic.

For the moment, both S-For and the former warring factions are frozen in place by the weather. The temperature has been -15C during the day, dropping to -30C at night.