Holbrooke sent back to save the peace

Bosnia in crisis: Serbs halt all contact with peace-keepers until Sarajevo frees officers seized on suspicion of war crimes
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Sarajevo - The Bosnian Serb army suspended all contacts with Nato-led peace-keepers yesterday as the Dayton peace process plunged deeper into crisis.

The US announced it was sending Richard Holbrooke, godfather of the original deal, back to the Balkans at the weekend to try to get the process back on track.

Nato declined to recognise the Serb army's announcement as it was in the name of its commander, General Ratko Mladic, who is indicted by the Hague tribunal for war crimes.

A Serb army statement said Gen Mladic ordered the suspension of all contacts with Nato until two senior Serb officers and at least six soldiers detained by the mainly-Muslim government as war crimes suspects had been released. He also banned all Bosnian Serbs from visiting Muslim-Croat territory. The Serbs had already suspended all talks with the Bosnian government in the row over the detentions, which they say breach the Dayton peace accord.

The Bosnian government says General Djordje Djukic and Colonel Aleksa Krsmanovic, detained in unclear circumstances on 30 January, are war criminals and the Hague War Crimes Tribunal is investigating them. The Serbs said the men were effectively involved in the negotiating process when detained.

The US State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, said the decision of Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, to send Mr Holbrooke - who visited the Balkans last weekend - to Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia was "sending a strong signal to all the parties that we expect the Dayton accords to be implemented".

The State Department has expressed concern at the circumstances of the arrests, but said they did not provide a valid pretext for suspending peace negotiations.

The Serbs won some support from the Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, who told reporters on arrival in Belgrade that Gen Djukic, who recently underwent a pancreas operation, should be freed.

The Bosnian army statement, faxed to Reuters in Belgrade, said Gen Mladic issued the order "suspending the holding of meetings with representatives of I-For [the Nato Implementation Force] until the release of the 11 BSA soldiers".

Gen Mladic also suspended official or unofficial military contacts with the Muslim-Croat Federation, which covers half the territory of Bosnia, and suspended other contacts, such as those on prisoner exchange.

Gen Mladic, unlike Gen Djukic and Col Krsmanovic, is on the Tribunal's list of 52 men it has indicted for war crimes during the three-and-a-half- year war. He had kept a low profile for two months.

Nato, like other international bodies, has refused to have any contact with Gen Mladic and said it was waiting to hear from other members of the Serb leadership.

Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales began a visit to inspect British members of I-For with a tour of damaged historic monuments in Dubrovnik.