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Bosnian Serbs Free Most U.N. Hostages

Most of the remaining U.N. peacekeepers held since their capture 20 days ago by Bosnian Serbs were bused to safety Tuesday, bringing the embarrassing hostage crisis close to an end.

The release of about 130 hostages - all but 15 - was announced by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who used the occasion to play the magnanimous statesman.

“We consider the crisis over,” Karadzic said at a news conference in Pale, the nearby ski resort where he has installed his rebel government.

“We do want a new environment … a new approach of the international community, totally impartial, and we do want to achieve peace as soon as possible,” he said.

Despite the conciliatory rhetoric, peace in Bosnia is looking more elusive than ever. For three weeks, the Bosnian Serbs have been blocking convoys carrying food for Sarajevo - as well as gas, electricity and water that flows through their territory into the city of 280,000.

Meanwhile, the Bosnian government is massing troops north of here in what could be shaping up as a major military offensive to liberate the long-besieged city. News reports Tuesday said that as many as 30,000 of the Bosnian army’s 200,000 troops were gathered in the area of Visoko, 12 miles to the northwest, and might try to punch a road into the closed Bosnian capital.

The Bosnian government has been talking forcefully about the need to take decisive action of its own, with the United Nations and NATO paralyzed over the hostages. U.N. officials had hinted last week at using a rapid-reaction force of up to 10,000 troops to open the roads into Sarajevo, but during the weekend backed off, saying the United Nations instead had decided to “abide strictly to peacekeeping principles.”

As far as many Sarajevans are concerned, there are few expectations that reinforced U.N. troops coming into Bosnia would be able to alleviate the situation.

“The whole world has been on its feet protesting over 300 peacekeepers in chains, while we are an entire nation that has been in chains for three years,” complained Esad Taljanovic, a Sarajevo dentist. “We are aware we can only count on our own forces to free Sarajevo.”