The American commander of NATO peacekeeping forces in Bosnia paid his first visit to Bosnian Serb leaders Tuesday and immediately was hit with a demand that the reunification of Sarajevo be delayed for up to a year.
A delay would change the timetable set forth in the U.S.-brokered peace treaty that formally ended the Bosnian war Dec. 14 and calls for the return of nine Serb-held Sarajevo suburbs to Bosnian government control.
The fate of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia devastated by Serbian shelling campaigns during the 3-1/2-year siege, remains one of the most delicate and potentially explosive obstacles to settling the war and stabilizing the country.
U.S. Adm. Leighton Smith, commander of the 60,000-strong NATO force which eventually will police Bosnia’s peace, said he would consider the Serbs’ request.
“I didn’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no,”’ Smith said at a news conference here. “Anything is possible.”
Momcilo Krajisnik, head of the Bosnian Serbs’ self-styled Parliament, told Smith that the reunification of Sarajevo should be postponed because of the dread Serbs have of being ruled by their enemy, the Muslim-led government. The success of the peace agreement could depend on it, he said.
“Sarajevo Serbs will never accept Muslim authority, because there is fear … the legacy of a bloody civil war,” Krajisnik told reporters. “We need time … to build confidence. Maybe sufficient time would be nine months, a year.”
The Serbs’ seeking of a delay will test Smith’s ability to enforce the peace treaty fairly but with the firmness needed to prevent the warring parties from wiggling out of their commitments. Past peace agreements in this region have fallen apart when the two sides signed up to a series of terms only to back out through procrastination and deceit.
Smith held his nearly two hours of talks with Krajisnik, whom he addressed as “Mr. President,” and other members of the Bosnian Serb leadership, including so-called Foreign Minister Aleksa Buha. They gave a news conference in a ski-resort hotel used by the secessionist government, with a Bosnian Serb flag promoting the cause of Serbian unity as a backdrop.(Begin optional trim)
But Smith pointedly avoided contact with Pale’s two most senior leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb army. The two are indicted war criminals and Smith, under the peace accord, would be obliged to detain them if he encountered them - something that was not going to happen.
The estimated 70,000 Serbs who live in Ilidza, Grbavica, Ilijas and other Serb-held suburbs around Sarajevo have threatened a mass exodus - taking everything from their washing machines to the coffins of their dead loved ones - if the reunification plan goes ahead. Some have already acted on the threat and left.
Drafted in Dayton, Ohio, the peace plan calls for the government gradually to take control of the suburbs starting Jan. 19 and finishing by March 19. International police monitors will supervise. The government has given only semi-convincing pledges of protection for the Serb citizenry.
“The Dayton solution for Sarajevo is not a just solution,” Krajisnik said. “Just to say the Serbs will be safe and secure is not sufficient.”
Senior U.S. officials who drafted the peace plan insist it cannot be renegotiated, and some diplomats were uncomfortable with Smith’s willingness to open the door to new deadlines.
“You can’t give them (the Serbs) an inch,” said one diplomat.
Bosnian Serb sources said they were hoping to put off the turnover of the suburbs long enough so that elections, scheduled to be held within nine months under the peace treaty, would take place while the Serbs still had control of those districts. That would strengthen their ability to maintain their hold on the areas.
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