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Serb abductions test Nato's resolve to act

Bosnia peace mission: US commander urged to ensure release of 16 Muslims and guarantee free movement of civilians


Serb officials yesterday admitted detaining Bosnian citizens travelling along roads into Sarajevo supposedly secured by Nato troops, prompting the first real test for the peace force.

Despite a high-level meeting between a Nato commander and the Serbs, none of the 16 people identified by the government as detainees has been freed. And while a spokesman for Nato's peace implementation force (I- For) said free movement was an issue for Carl Bildt's civilian mission, he urged the military to intervene.

The Serbs did release three elderly Bosnians who strayed into enemy territory late on Tuesday, but they were not among the 16 listed as missing.

At a meeting yesterday between the two parties the Serbs offered to swap those arrested in a prisoner-of-war exchange, according to a source close to the talks. The Bosnian government refused: "They are all civilians," the source said.

A spokesman for I-For, which is responsible for creating a secure environment across Bosnia, insisted the matter should be dealt with by the civilian mission. Mr Bildt, its boss, finally arrived in Sarajevo yesterday, lagging behind the military by two weeks and complaining of few resources.

He accepted criticism of his slow start, but said I-For ought to help fill the vacuum. "It is important that all of the available resources here are used to try and secure freedom of movement", Mr Bildt said. His first stop would be to visit the I-For commander, Admiral Leighton Smith, to discuss the detainees. "Freedom of movement will have to be guaranteed one way or the other", he said.

William Perry, the US Defense Secretary, who also visited Sarajevo yesterday, agreed. "It's very important that the police force gets in and established ... as soon as possible. In the meantime, Nato's force will do what it can to assist."

Nato troops manning the road through the Serb-held suburb of Ilidza are now advising Bosnian civilians to travel in convoys, to prevent further abductions.

Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Walker, commander of Nato land forces in Bosnia, raised the issue of illegal detentions with the Serb mayor of Ilidza, Nedzeljko Prstojevic, yesterday. "The question, in so far as it affects the peace agreement, is unsatisfactory," the general said afterwards. "The requirements of the Dayton peace agreement are such that there is to be total freedom of movement throughout the country. This is clearly not the case."

Mr Prstojevic, wearing army fatigues, said: "There will not be any problems if civilians use the normal routes." He refused to give names or numbers of those detained, but said all but three had been released "or are now leaving prison". The three left had ventured off the main road "very far into Serb territory".

However, Bosnian officials said none of those detained had been released by nightfall.