Karadzic tells Serbs to accept peace deal

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Bosnian Serb leaders publicly confirmed their acceptance of the Dayton peace deal for the first time last night, but it was not clear whether they had persuaded Serbs on the front line in Sarajevo to lay down their arms.

"We accept the peace, but we have the right to continue our struggle by political means," the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said in a television broadcast aimed at persuading diehard rebels that their leaders did their best, and that further armed resistance would achieve nothing.

Three Serb-held suburbs of Sarajevo, Vogosca, Hadzici and Ilidza, have rejected the peace accord, under which they would return to Bosnian government control. The suburbs have called for increased "military readiness". In another suburb, due to change hands, Grbavica, small arms and machine- gun fire rang out along front lines yesterday. Mr Karadzic indirectly urged them to desist last night, saying: "We have given up the war option."

But a closed-door meeting between Mr Karadzic and leaders of the Sarajevo Serbs went on into the night amid clear signs that the Serbs who have borne the brunt of the war in the capital's front-line districts were resisting pressure to fall in line.

Looking grim and subdued, Mr Karadzic and his deputy, Momcilo Krajisnik, argued that their demands were ignored at the peace negotiations at Dayton, Ohio, both by the Americans and by President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, who negotiated on their behalf. The most painful aspect to his leadership, said Mr Karadzic, was being overruled on the issue of towns in western Bosnia and the loss of Sarajevo, where he claimed 150,000 Serbs loyal to him live. "Sarajevo ... is a problem that has not been solved," he said.

Although the Bosnian Serb leader evaded questions on his political future, his reluctant acceptance of the deal may reassure the US about sending troops to reinforce the agreement. But the many potential threats still remaining were demonstrated by an incident on Thursday night, when Bangla- deshi peace-keepers in northern Bosnia came under fire from Bosnian soldiers who stormed their compound and looted warehouses, prompting a protest from UN commanders.

The Bangladeshis, based in Velika Kladusa, on the border with Croatia, were due to leave the area yesterday: it seems a section of the Bosnian army sought to make the most of their departure. Bosnian authorities have promised to investigate the incident and resolve it, which means returning the stolen property, UN sources said. Lieutenant-General Rupert Smith, the UN commander in Bosnia, met Hasan Muratovic, minister for liaison with the UN, while Colonel Erik Dam, the UN commander in Bihac, held talks with General Atif Dudakovic, commander of the Bosnian Fifth Corps. Col Dam said Gen Dudakovic denied all knowledge of the attack, but promised to identify the culprits. "It was a well-planned operation," the colonel said.

At around midnight, a convoy of 35 trucks approached the UN base at Velika Kladusa, which houses 80 soldiers from the Bangladeshi battalion, and requested permission to enter. Refused, the men began to move the gate, prompting the Bangladeshi guard to fire warning shots in the air. A full- scale attack began, supported by three machine-gun positions on the hills around the base.

Col Dam arrived and remonstrated with the looters, who included around 200 men in uniform and 100 civilians, but he was forced to retreat. The 35 trucks left at dawn, carrying 20,000 litres of fuel and portable generators, followed by eight stolen armoured personnel carriers.

There is already concern among UN officials that rebel Serbs might try to scupper the agreement by attacking peace-keepers in the hope of deterring the arrival of US troops to police the deal. Looting of UN bases by the Bosnian army, which should, in theory, welcome Nato's arrival, can only confuse the picture.