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Major meets 'democratic' Serbs on visit to troops

The Prime Minister yesterday became the first senior Western leader to visit Republika Srpska, the half of Bosnia now ruled by Radovan Karadzic, during a day trip aimed at applauding the troops, examining the peace process and exploring the prospects for an alternative Serb leadership.

The timing was unfortunate, given the allegations about Tory party funding, and Mr Karadzic's success last week in ousting Rajko Kasagic, the moderate Serb prime minister courted by the West.

In a belated attempt to boost opposition to Mr Karadzic who has been indicted for genocide and is banned from elections, Mr Major had a "very useful exchange of views" in Banja Luka with four men he described as "local democratic politicians".

None is very attractive: Mr Kasagic still claims support from "my president". Predrag Radic, the mayor of Banja Luka presided over the expulsion of almost all non-Serbs from the city. Dragutin Ilic belongs to the Socialist Party (an offshoot of President Slobodan Milosevic's ruling party in Belgrade) and Milorad Dodik belongs to the opposition (but still Nationalist) Social Democrats.

Mr Major said the talks were intended to elicit the men's concerns and "ambitions". These he would not reveal. Nor would he comment on the likelihood of Mr Karadzic being arrested by the 60,000 Nato troops in Bosnia before the September elections. The removal of war criminals was cited as a precondition for elections by President Alija Izetbegovic in his brief chat with the Mr Major.

But Mr Major said he wanted to see Mr Karadzic in court at The Hague, along with his military commander General Ratko Mladic. "I wouldn't be content for them just to fade away," he said.

He did not respond to Mr Izetbegovic's request that Britain should try head off a looming financial crisis at The Hague war-crimes tribunal, but pledged full support for its work and for Bosnia's territorial integrity. Mr Izetbegovic said the presence of war criminals and the plight of refugees unable to return home, were heightening fears of the eventual division of Bosnia.

The Bosnian president acknowledged the vast improvements for people in Bosnia under Dayton, a theme Mr Major emphasised during his visit to troops. Addressing soldiers in the Serb-held town of Sipovo he assured them of the gratitude of locals. Mr Major toured the local market and a rubbish dump being cleared by Serbs and British troops.