Plea for Bosnians to protect Serbs

Balkan peace: Strict Dayton timetable for handover of Sarajevo suburbs revealed as Pale stokes fears of a second Beirut



The Bosnian government was yesterday urged to provide greater security guarantees for Serbs living in suburbs of Sarajevo due to revert to government control under the Dayton peace plan. Under the agreement, the rebel Serb army will move out, probably next month, to be replaced by Nato troops and then government officials, prompting many local Serbs to seek new homes for fear of Bosnian reprisals.

The French President, Jacques Chirac, wrote to President Bill Clinton to express concerns about the agreement. Sarajevo is in the area to be held by French troops in the Nato Implementation Force (I-For). A US delegation visiting the city yesterday told government officials they must do more to calm Serb anxieties, warning that the Bosnian Serb leadership in Pale may exploit fears of trouble in an attempt to head off the Nato deployment.

Fears of Bosnian reprisals against Serbs in the suburbs of Ilidza, Grbavica, Ilijas, Vogosca and Hadzici, which are to revert to government rule 45 days after the transfer of authority in Bosnia from the UN to Nato, are being stoked by Pale, which is warning of a "second Beirut". A huge exodus is more likely. Despite government promises of equal treatment for all citizens, local Serbs are anxious about staying once their army has withdrawn.

Under a military annex to the Dayton plan seen by the Independent, the Serbs must withdraw all forces and weapons from the five suburbs within 45 days of the transfer, which is expected to take place around 18 December. I-For will move in after 30 days, and, to ensure an orderly transition, the government will not be allowed to send in its forces until 90 days after the transfer. Soldiers who live locally and wish to stay (without weapons) must register with an I-For post near their homes.

Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnian Prime Minister and an advocate of a multi- ethnic state, dismissed Mr Chirac's complaints. "We have tens of thousands of Serbs living right now in Sarajevo because Sarajevo has been for centuries a multi-ethnic town," he said. "All of us ... enjoy the same rights."

His message was reinforced by the Foreign Minister, Muhamed Sacirbey, who signed an agreement yesterday with his Greek counterpart, Carolos Papoulias, reopening diplomatic relations with Athens, which has close ties to the Serbs through the Orthodox church. The ceremony, witnessed by the Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, was a symbol that "Sarajevo belongs to everyone", said Mr Sacirbey.

However, Mirko Pejanovic, one of the two Serbs in Bosnia's collective presidency, urged his government to go further to reassure Serbs in the suburbs, and asked the international community to shore up Serb opinion in the face of Pale's propaganda. "The government is doing a lot, but it should be doing more," he said.

Mr Pejanovic and the Serb Civic Council in Sarajevo, where around 25,000 to 30,000 Serbs live under government control, said officials should offer an amnesty to Serb soldiers, most of whom were conscripts, and prosecute only "war criminals". "Every day the propaganda from Pale fuels the time bomb," he said. "Many of [the Serb men in the five suburbs] were drafted into the army. If they have to leave, their families will go with them."

But Mr Sacirbey said there was no need for an amnesty, because the rights of all civilians were guaranteed, and that included soldiers, once they "take on the role of civilians". He added, however, that in the next few days the government would publish "concrete proposals" on the reintegration to Sarajevo of the Serb-held areas.

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