Siege of Sarajevo declared at an end

Peace in Bosnia: Blow to multi-national ideal as Serbs flee from suburb passing into Muslim-Croat control
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The Independent Online
The Muslim-led Bosnian government declared the Serb siege of Sarajevo to be officially at an end yesterday after taking control of the suburb of Ilijas and a vital road connecting the capital to the rest of Bosnia. "The siege of Sarajevo is now officially over," said the Bosnian Interior Minister, Avdo Hebib, after he and other government officials arrived in Ilijas in a convoy of bullet-proof cars, police vehicles and fire engines.

The Bosnian government reclaimed control of Ilijas four years to the day after Bosnian Muslims and Croats voted in a referendum to declare independence from former Yugoslavia.

Most Bosnian Serbs, who made up about one-third of Bosnia's pre-war population, boycotted the referendum, and full-scale conflict broke out in early April 1992.

Ilijas is one of five Serb-controlled suburbs of Sarajevo that the Dayton peace agreement stipulated should return to Muslim-Croat authority. As in the case of Vogosca, the first suburb to pass under Muslim-Croat control last week, most Serb residents of Ilijas had fled their homes in the days preceding the handover.

Out of 17,000 people who lived in Ilijas at the end of the war, only about 2,000 were still there at the beginning of this week, according to United Nations officials.

The evacuation of Serbs continued up to the last minute, with seven buses taking women and elderly people out of Ilijas on Wednesday afternoon for the northern Bosnian Serb city of Banja Luka.

Tens of thousands of Serbs have left the five suburbs ahead of the handover of power, which is due to be completed by 20 March. Many have abandoned their homes under pressure from Bosnian Serb authorities, who have whipped up fears of Muslim persecution and made normal life all but impossible by stripping the suburbs of their infrastructure.

UN police said that some Serb residents had set ablaze an apartment block and several houses and cars in the 24 hours before the transfer of power in Ilijas. Most homes were empty.

The departure of the Serbs has struck a severe blow at international efforts to reconstitute Sarajevo as the multi-national capital of a united Bosnia. The aim of the Bosnian Serb authorities appears to be the permanent physical separation of Serbs from Muslims and Croats, a goal they did not fully achieve during the war.

The minority of Serbs who remain loyal to the Bosnian government and believe in a multi-national Bosnia have been shocked by the tactics of the Bosnian Serb leaders based in Pale, outside Sarajevo. In a letter to the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, the pro-government Serb Civic Council said: "Under pressure from the Pale authorities, Serbs are being pushed into an exodus of the worst kind.

"They are being forced to abandon and burn their own houses and homes and to go into the unknown ... Unfortunately, the international community, as in the case of Srebrenica, is quietly watching this tragedy and the final stages of the ethnic division of Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Some international observers have blamed Muslim authorities for stoking the fears of Serb civilians. Michael Steiner, an assistant to Carl Bildt, the top European Union representative in Bosnia, said Muslim policemen who entered Vogosca last week had torn down the Serb flag and trampled on it.

"This is exactly what happened - before the eyes of the Serb population, before Serb cameras. You can imagine what a disastrous effect this has on those who are still thinking about staying in the town," he said.

The US ambassador to Bosnia, John Menzies, visited Ilijas to watch the transfer of power and expressed the hope that Serbs who had left their homes would gradually trickle back. "Damage in the town looks relatively limited. The city of Sarajevo is knitting itself back together again," he said.

Control of Ilijas was crucial to the Bosnian Serbs' wartime strategy of maintaining a stranglehold on Sarajevo. It prevented the Muslim-led forces from capturing the main road north out of Sarajevo and linking the capital with Visoko, a government-controlled town .