Holbrooke puts Bosnian deal back on course

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The Independent Online
After a weekend of virtually non-stop negotiations with the leaders of the three conflicting sides in Bosnia, the chief architect of the Bosnian peace process, Richard Holbrooke, yesterday smoothed over many of the gaping cracks in the Dayton peace process.

Western mediators obtained a commitment from President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia that the Bosnian Serbs would rejoin military and civilian commissions set up to implement the peace. Mr Holbrooke said moves to suspend UN sanctions against the Bosnian Serbs would begin this week, once Nato commanders found the Serbs were complying with the accords.

The Muslims and Croats are to end their division of the city of Mostar, which had become the most dangerous flashpoint of all over the past two weeks. The handover of Sarajevo's Serb-held suburbs is to take place on 20 March, as outlined at Dayton. The Bosnian government had pushed for the date to be brought forward but conceded to Western demands to stick to the original plan.

There was agreement on the immediate release of prisoners of war and economic redevelopment of the region.

''We have avoided a crisis,'' said Mr Holbrooke, ''by smoothing out and perhaps eliminating some of those bumps in the road we have encountered ... This was Dayton's first real test. I believe we passed the test but it was not easy.''

The biggest triumph of the weekend for Mr Holbrook, the EU representative, Carl Bildt, and negotiators from Britain, France, Russia and Italy - and the biggest sticking point - was the agreement on Mostar. Croat resistance to the reunification of the city led to a riot earlier this month in which the armoured car of the EU administrator, Hans Koschnik, was shot at and stoned.

At first the talks appeared to falter as President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia left unexpectedly for Zagreb. But later, rival community leaders from Mostar flew to Rome and the Muslims and Croats agreed to put the whole city under the control of a unified police force from noon tomorrow, providing "complete and unlimited freedom of movement for all".

Mr Milosevic's biggest concession was to agree to the resumption of participation by the Bosnian Serbs in the peace process. A hotline would be established between Mr Milosevic and his Bosnian counterpart, Alija Izetbegovic. The two men intended to meet on their own in the next few days and every month thereafter.

The Rome meeting provided an upbeat finale to Mr Holbrooke's peace efforts as he prepares to leave his job at the State Department, at the end of the month. Whether it will be enough to save the Dayton accords, signed last November, remains to be seen.

One issue glossed over was the fate of the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and his army chief, General Ratko Mladic. They are both indicted war criminals but are still in office despite a commitment at Dayton to remove them.

In an apparent attempt to defuse tension sparked by the arrest and extradition of two Bosnian Serb army officers suspected of war crimes, the three sides agreed that future arrests could only take place if the International Tribunal in the Hague issued or approved a specific warrant.

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