Serbs stretch land-swap deadline

Peace in Bosnia: Enemies hand over territory on time but Sarajevo suburbs remain a stumbling-block


Bosnia's competing armies passed the latest Western peace test at the weekend, pulling out of 1,500 square kilometres of territory to be handed over to the enemy under the Dayton peace plan.

But in the most contentious areas to change hands - five Serb-held suburbs of Sarajevo due to revert to government rule - Bosnian ministers disputed the decisions of the international civilian chief, Carl Bildt, to allow Serb police to remain after the 3 February deadline to still the fears of Serbs in the area.

Hasan Muratovic, the Prime Minister, yesterday grudgingly accepted the continued presence of Serb police in the suburbs for a few more weeks, provided they were disarmed. Nato sources said the government would give Mr Bildt a breathing space to draw up a time-table for the transition to full Bosnian control, which comes into effect on 19 March.

Under the Dayton plan, all "forces" were to have withdrawn from the "areas of transition" - such as the suburbs - by 3 February. Mr Bildt and Nato's Implementation Force (I-For) have interpreted "forces" as strictly military - which means the Bosnian government, which has nominal control of the areas, could also introduce policemen. Thus far they have chosen not to make a move that would cause chaos and, potentially, a renewal of conflict.

Since being defeated at Dayton, the Bosnian Serb leadership has fought to keep Sarajevo divided by inflaming the fears of Serb residents and threatening armed uprisings. It is alleged that they have dressed Serb soldiers as policemen, and ordered a senior Sarajevo Serb official to boycott a meeting on the police issue. The government fears that Mr Bildt's decision will encourage such tactics.

In the face of government protests, I-For agreed to increase its presence in the five suburbs. Security for Serbs, and others returning home across the former front line, is to be guaranteed by I-For troops and officers of the International Police Task Force. However, fewer than 300 of the 1,600 foreign policemen promised have arrived in Bosnia, and only half are stationed in Sarajevo.

The international police are unarmed, have no right to make arrests or investigate cases, and patrol only in daylight hours. Terrified that the line between the military and civilian aspects of the Dayton accords will blur, I-For emphatically does not want to plug the gap.

Elsewhere in Bosnia, I-For's task of monitoring compliance with the deadline has been easier. The largest chunk of territory to change hands was "the anvil", which came under Serb control.

The President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, yesterday reversed a two- year stand and agreed to allow international war crimes investigators to open an office in Belgrade. The move could speed the gathering of evidence of "ethnic cleansing" in the four-year Bosnian war.

Mr Milosevic is still refusing to arrange the extradition of suspected war criminals to stand trial in The Hague, however.