Serbia and Bosnia take first steps to recognition

Balkan breakthrough? Belgrade and Sarajevo agree to open unofficial embassies as ceasefire takes hold in the north-west

The governments of Bosnia and rump Yugoslavia, which comprises Serbia and Montenegro, agreed yesterday to open liaison offices in each other's capitals, a move that should pave the way to full diplomatic recognition.

Future Bosnian elections also were discussed at talks yesterday in Sarajevo and Belgrade, with international mediators emphasising their determination to counter the effects of "ethnic cleansing" and restore a multi-national electorate.

The three mediators, Richard Holbrooke of the United States, Carl Bildt of the European Union and Igor Ivanov of Russia, warned of a tortuous road ahead, but were optimistic about peace talks at the end of the month in the United States.

"The road ahead is very daunting and we are overwhelmed by the tasks ahead of us," Mr Holbrooke said, describing the deal to open liaison offices as "a small step on a difficult and long road". But Mr Bildt, who discussed the elections with Momcilo Krajisnik, a senior Bosnian Serb official, said he expected a vote within a year.

"We don't want elections that ratify 'ethnic cleansing'," Mr Bildt said. One suggestion is that Bosnians may be entitled to vote by post for representatives in their prewar districts. But that raises the question of how to get the Bosnian Serb regime in Pale to agree to a deal that would overturn its efforts to carve out an ethnically pure state. Under the post-war principles agreed so far, the Serb entity in Bosnia would provide a third of the MPs for a national parliament: their homogeneity would be seriously compromised if Muslims and Croats expelled from Serb-held lands were able to vote for those MPs.

The week-old ceasefire appeared to be holding yesterday, although UN troops have been prevented from getting to the new front line after rapid advances by Croat and Bosnian government troops, with more atrocities against non-Serbs discovered in their wake.

A UN aid convoy led by French peace-keepers reached Gorazde from Sarajevo for the first time in two years, without interference from Serb forces. Tuesday's convoy brought meals for about 3,000 people.

The UN refugee agency released a report claiming more than 100 non- Serb civilians had been killed in Bosanski Novi, in north-west Bosnia, before the Serbs withdrew, and that there had been more rape and murder of non-Serbs in Prijedor. Local sources said the troops responsible belonged to the Serb commander known as "Arkan".

Bosnian government forces on Tuesday finally gave British peace-keepers access to some of the territory they have gained - but it was a road captured nearly a year ago, 20 miles south of the new front line. British UN forces yesterday sent their first convoy down the road from Kupres, which was captured by Bosnian government troops last November, to Bugojno

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