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Serbs stage an explosive exit from Sarajevo

The pop and crackle of burning bullets peppered the farewell speeches as the Bosnian Serb police in Sarajevo lowered their flag in a ceremony to mark their withdrawal from Grbavica, a front-line suburb reverting to government rule today.

As smoke drifted from houses burning in the background, two dozen policemen in royal blue camouflage lined up in front of headquarters, for speeches lamenting the Serbs' departure and promising their return some day. Officials kissed the red-white-and-blue flag, taken down to the strains of an old Serb anthem.

"We are leaving proudly," Milorad Katic, the Serb mayor, told his men. There was a huge explosion: the fire set in a house nearby by Serbs who are angry about their losses had finally reached the ammunition dumped there.

Similar bangs punctuated the afternoon in Grbavica yesterday, its desolate landscape of grim towerblocks wreathed in the smoke of fires set by gangs of enraged Serbs.

Police from the Muslim-Croat Federation are due to take control of the suburb at 6am today, marking the final reunification of Sarajevo under the Dayton peace plan.

The dispossessed are wreaking their revenge. Italian Nato troops in Grbavica have spent the past few days rescuing civilians from burning buildings, and arresting Serb men for arson and possession of explosives.

Unfortunately, the Italian commander is under orders to turn these miscreants over to the Bosnian Serb police. The arsonists are then released.

So it is that Nato tries to keep order in the last hours of the Serb presence in Sarajevo.

Ljiljana Bukic wept as she watched the flames roaring through the rafters of her building, despite the best efforts of her elderly neighbours who ran between their kitchens and balconies hurling water at the fire. They managed, without the help of the Sarajevo fire department, to extinguish the flames and save the building.

"We were planning to stay, but you see what is going on - Hitler did not do what these people are doing," Mrs Bukic said through tears. "It's like a child's game," she added.

She had heard that some men had started the fire in one of the flats, but she had not seen them. "I would have strangled them - they would not have had to go to The Hague [war crimes tribunal]," she said. "There were children in this building."

Mr Katic said: "This is what our people are doing because they are dissatisfied and because of the tragedy that has befallen them," he said. "I understand why. I have sympathy for them because they don't want anyone else to live in their house."

The Serbs who wish to stay are being driven out by propaganda from their own side. The UN believes only 8,000 to 10,000 Serbs - 10 to 12 per cent of the wartime population - have remained in the five Sarajevo suburbs changing hands.