Serbs threaten to quit Sarajevo

Peace in Bosnia: The Dayton agreement talks of a united city, but rebels prepare a mass exodus from Muslim control

Ilidza, near Sarajevo

Safety guarantees from the Bosnian government have done little to calm the fears of some 50,000 Serbs living in four suburbs of Sarajevo due to return to government rule under the Dayton peace plan. But nor have they inspired much thought of rebellion: the option of flight is favoured over fight in Ilidza, west of the capital.

President Jacques Chirac called in a letter to President Clinton yesterday for guarantees to be given to the Serbs in Sarajevo who are to come under control of the Bosnian Muslim-led government. "It is out of the question to renegotiate the terms of the [Dayton] agreement concerning Sarajevo as the Bosnian Serbs want, but it is absolutely essential that we give the Bosnian Serb population there the guarantees they quite rightly expect," the French President wrote.

Some 3,000 to 4,000 separatist Serbs gathered in the suburb yesterday to demand that the world rewrite the peace deal. "Sarajevo is Serb," they cried. "We will never leave." But despite the banners - "Good fences make good friends" was the strangest - the writing is on the wall, and the people of Ilidza know it.

On Tuesday, President Alija Izetbegovic assured women and children they would be safe under his control, but did not extend the guarantee to their men - and in Ilidza, every man is a soldier. The Serb leadership is stoking such fears, warning of a "second Beirut" if the city is not divided.

Yesterday the Bosnian Foreign Minister, Muhamed Sacirbey, tried again: "All civilians within a united Sarajevo ... will have their safety guaranteed by our government," he said. "We will not engage in trying to find out who has been a soldier and who was not. Of course there will be criminal responsibilities for those who engaged in war crimes."

But who is to make that distinction? "My husband was a soldier for four years," said Sretanka, a clerk at the demonstration. "My safety is guaranteed but not my husband's. How can we live under their authority?" But if it was? "We would say, 'thank you, but no.' "

One of the few to express any hope at all was Mirko Knezevic - perhaps because two of his brothers have lived safely across the line throughout the war. "I think I would stay if there were to be a joint civilian authority and an open city and we could co-operate in all aspects of economic life," he said.

Mr Sacirbey has sought to encourage such thinking, emphasising the huge flow of money the city expects after the war. "What is important is that the people on the other side of the line understand that it is to their benefit to be part of a united Sarajevo," he told reporters. "They have not been sold out as a part of a peace agreement. We want them to be sharing in the benefits of a united Sarajevo because they are a part of Sarajevo."

But talk among the crowd was mostly of exodus, despite the best efforts of the organisers. "The politicians can leave, but we will not," said one speaker, to cheers and applause. Citizens took turns on the platform, flanked by Serb flags and a portrait of St George slaying the dragon (apparently symbolic of Serb suffering). It was a new kind of Bosnian Serb offensive. "These people know that they cannot fight for Sarajevo with arms, but perhaps politically, like this," said one Serb official from headquarters in Pale. "Otherwise they will all leave."