The president of Serbia announced Monday he had persuaded fellow Serbs in Bosnia to release the more than 250 U.N. peacekeepers they hold hostage.
Slobodan Milosevic, in a statement from his Belgrade office, said his chief of security reported that Bosnian Serb leaders had “responded positively” to his demands to quickly free the hostages.
Releasing the peacekeepers would defuse the Bosnian Serbs’ latest standoff with the international community and strengthen Milosevic’s bid to get economic sanctions lifted against Serbia.
It was not known if or when the releases would occur.
U.S. officials in Washington, meanwhile, said they have been receiving signals that could be coming from the American F-16 pilot who crashed Friday in northern Bosnia.
“The signals alone aren’t enough for us to conclude that the pilot is alive, but it is encouraging,” a senior Pentagon told reporters Monday. “We are doing our utmost to locate these signals.”
The plane, whose pilot has not been identified, was shot down by a Bosnian Serb surfaceto-air missile while on a NATO air patrol.
“We’ve not found the front end of the plane,” the official said, which means the pilot could have ejected before crashing or someone could have found the wreckage and is using the pilot’s communications device.
Milosevic’s statement Monday treated the release of all hostages as a done deal. “The international community and all sides in the conflict should use this moment of relaxation of high tensions to … move towards peace,” it said.
Sources in Pale, the Bosnian Serb capital nine miles from Sarajevo, said the hostages were being gathered from detention points in preparation for departure. A similiar procedure occurred Friday before 121 hostages were freed.
Pentagon officials said about 3,500 U.S. Army troops and just over 100 helicopters will be heading from Germany into Italy in preparation for potential rescue missions in Bosnia.
The force will include both attack and transport helicopters, officials said. It could begin preparations as early as Tuesday.
“This is not an exercise; this is positioning” in case the U.N. peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia need to be withdrawn, said a Pentagon source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Milosevic’s announcement came minutes after his security chief, Jovica Stanisic, arrived in Pale. Hours of meetings Monday produced no firm time of the hostages’ release, but it appeared Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was under heavy pressure from Milosevic.
Over the weekend, the Bosnian Serb commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, vowed not to let more hostages go without guarantees that NATO will not repeat its May 25-26 airstrikes.
NATO jets blew up rebel ammunition dumps outside Pale in retaliation for the Bosnian Serbs’ artillery strikes in Sarajevo.
Asked about the hostages after Monday’s talks with Greek officials who are acting as mediators, Karadzic said, “We are going to work that subject out with Mr. Milosevic.”
“We hope to hear from the international community that there will be no more airstrikes,” Karadzic added. He said Milosevic would discuss the hostages with the Greeks on Tuesday.