Smiles for Nato in 'heart of darkness'

Click to follow
Nato's chief commander in Bosnia yesterday visited the Serb citadel of Banja Luka, described by UN officials as "the heart of darkness" in reference to the ethnic purges of the past four years, to a fulsome welcome from local officials.

Children mobbed the US army helicopter ferrying Admiral Leighton Smith to a snowy football field in Banja Luka, Serb officers happily escorted him around a sensitive weapons factory and Nikola Koljevic, vice-president of the Bosnian Serb statelet, announced he would tell his constituents to remain in five Sarajevo suburbs when they revert to government rule.

Recent history - the refusal of the Serb authorities to allow the top UN official to visit Banja Luka, let alone to deploy peace-keepers, and the "ethnic cleansing" of half a million non-Serbs - was forgotten in the honeymoon glow of the Dayton peace plan. "History starts now," the admiral said. "We don't want to go back in time or dig up old wounds . . . reconciliation . . . I think that's what it is all about."

The gloom, fury and confusion permeating Serb-held Sarajevo, whose citizens face life under the rule of those they besieged for so long, means nothing in Banja Luka, which did relatively well out of the Dayton plan. "We suffered enough for Sarajevo; we don't want to get in any more fights," said Tanja Lucic, a young Banja Lukan deputised to translate for Admiral Smith. "The Dayton plan says Sarajevo is not ours anyway, so we just have to agree with it." Rivalry between Banja Luka, the only real city the Serbs hold in Bosnia, and Pale, the village capital near Sarajevo that owed its power to proximity, has spun into outright hostility.

Mr Koljevic, a veteran of the Pale circle, has moved to Banja Luka, apparently in an attempt to secure a political future. He said Admiral Smith had assured him I-For would do all it could to guarantee the safety of Serbs in Sarajevo: "I will recommend [that Serbs stay] but think it's very difficult to convince them . . . and the problem has to be solved in the next two weeks if we want to prevent catastrophe."

However, in line with Pale's attempts to rewrite Dayton, Mr Koljevic said the solution for Sarajevo would be the "Mostar model" of ethnic cantons - which will not happen. Admiral Smith stated categorically that he does not have the authority to extend the transition period to Bosnian rule in Sarajevo, and that I-For hoped instead to convince Serbs to stay. "We are seriously trying to convey to the people of Sarajevo that our job is to establish a secure environment in which they can lead normal lives," he said.

While Pale mutters darkly about the need to rewrite Dayton, appealing to Admiral Smith to extend the transition period to Bosnian rule over Serb-held Sarajevo, Banja Luka has welcomed I-For with open arms. Major- General Michael Jackson, commander of the British Nato sector, was in the city yesterday to discuss the logistics of moving his headquarters. And Admiral Smith's request to visit the Kosmos military complex, where missile systems and other weapons are repaired and maintained, won a gushing invitation unthinkable a few weeks ago.

"What would you like to see?" Colonel Stevan Radivojsa, the director, asked, before leading the admiral to a hangar housing a tank, a howitzer, anti-aircraft guns and a British-made Marconi radar system for use with the Serb air-defence network that downed two Nato jets this year. The colonel handed the admiral two gift-wrapped Kosmos diaries as a souvenir. "You can use it when you visit your soldiers on the front line," he said cheerily.