Serbs surrender front-line posts

Policing the peace in Bosnia: French hail warring factions' decision to abandon key positions as sign that war is really over
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Amid a relentless snowfall, a handful of French soldiers, accompanied by a dog and an armoured personnel carrier, walked slowly down a broad avenue scanning the shattered buildings around for signs of life. Had they stood here a few weeks ago, "we would all be dead", Major Rodolph D'Almont said cheerfully.

The street, lined with coils of razor wire set up three days ago by French troops of I-For, the Nato Implementation Force, was once the front line between Bosnian government and Serb forces. The red brick spire of an Orthodox church, shrouded in scaffolding, loomed in the near distance. "It was used for years as an observation post and sniping point by the Serbs," the major said. But the soldiers are gone now, withdrawn under the Dayton peace plan, which required the warring armies to pull back from around 40 designated positions around Sarajevo by midnight last night.

Elliot, a ginger mongrel, apparently of Alsatian descent, wandered the street seeking a fresh scent that would alert his handler to the return of any local troops, but found nothing.

So far, none of the combatants have tried to return: "Two nights ago we saw someone with our night-vision equipment, but it was only an unarmed soldier who had forgotten some [non-military] things," Major D'Almont said. In a square nearby, a few Bosnian civilians lobbed snowballs amid the turned earth of the vegetable gardens that helped to sustain the city through the siege.

Rough-hewn steps leading to a muddy, water-logged trench marked the lines of its defence. The French were impressed by the trench networks on both sides; this, of Bosnian construction, led from a building under the pavement, over pipelines and under cables, to an abandoned school building. "Be careful - all the rooms facing the Serb side are booby-trapped," Major D'Almont said.

Two basketball nets hung in the hall, decorated by a mural and graffiti of a later generation. "The Islamic Republic of Bosnia," said one wall. "Sex Drugs Rock and Roll," said the other. The Bosnian army sandbagged the building and cut gunsights in the walls, knocked holes in walls and ceilings and strung telephone wires to aid communication.

"They were very good," the major said. "In four years of war you learn a lot."

A few hundred metres away, Lieutenant Magon de la Villehuchet, of the 17th Airborne Engineer Regiment, brushed the snow from a large green anti- tank mine and carefully unscrewed the three detonators. At least 18 mines were strewn across the narrow street, abandoned by Bosnian Serb soldiers for I-For to clear.

"Anti-personnel and anti-tank mines that we recognise we can disarm and take away," the lieutenant said. "But when, for example, you find rifle grenades that have not exploded, you must destroy them on the road. You can't pick them up because if you move them they might explode in your hand."

A rifle grenade and a hand-grenade lay in the snow under a piece of plastic explosive laid by the French, a wire trailing to the detonator some 30m away. A bright flash, a cloud of black smoke and, a split second later, the crack of an explosion, and a fresh crater, black and smoking, scarred the street.

Buildings on both sides of what is known as the "Airport Settlement", built depressingly close to the flight path to house workers at Sarajevo airport, are utterly destroyed, the facades blown away and the supporting walls riddled with bullet-holes and shell scars. But again, the soldiers are gone. It is the same story at the "Chetnik Cafe", a bunker on the mountain road to Pale, the Bosnian Serb capital that affords a glorious and lethal view of Sarajevo.

"We are very confused. We've received conflicting orders over the last three days - most soldiers have left already and most equipment," Vojislav, a 27-year-old Serb soldier, said gloomily. His only companions were two dogs and a drunken comrade. "I feel bad about [withdrawing], of course," Sekul Skocojic, another soldier, said. "The circumstances that forced us to leave are an international disgrace. We're leaving with a heavy heart." But, he added: "We are honourable people and we will respect the agreement."

Major D'Almont is an optimist who believes the retreat from positions such as the school in Dobrinja is a sign the war is over: "They would never withdraw from such a place if they wanted to fight on. They would find it almost impossible to retake it. Anything is possible after four years of war ... but everything leads us to believe peace is starting to settle in."