Bosnian Serb political leaders said late Saturday they would restore ties with the NATO-led peace force, but it was unclear if the Serb military would go along.
The unexpected announcement came just hours before the top U.S. mediator for Bosnia was to arrive in Sarajevo to confront the gravest challenge yet to the U.S.-brokered peace plan. Richard Holbrooke hopes to convince the Serbs to adhere to the agreement and to resume relations with NATO.
The Serbs severed high-level contacts with the 60,000-strong peace force on Thursday, after the the Bosnian government arrested two Serb officers accused of war crimes.
At a special session of the Serbs’ self-styled Cabinet late Saturday, Prime Minister Rajko Kasagic said that his government was restoring relations with the NATO force.
“This incident must in no way hinder cooperation between the Bosnian Serb republic” and NATO, Kasagic told delegates.
Senior Serb officials at the session told The Associated Press that Kasagic was reading from a statement prepared by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
The statement demanded that all Serbs detained by the Bosnian government be released. Earlier, in a sign of good will, the Bosnian government released four detained Serb soldiers. The four crossed into the Serb-held sector of Sarajevo soon after dusk Saturday.
There was no immediate word on how the Bosnian Serb army would react to the civilian decision.
But the commander in Bosnia, U.S. Adm. Leighton Smith, recently received a letter from Bosnian Serb commander Gen. Ratko Mladic, who assured Smith that “Bosnian Serbs do not want any conflict with NATO,” the official said.
Mladic had sent Smith a letter last week announcing the end of contact, a retaliation for the arrest Jan. 30 of Gen. Djordje Djukic and Col. Aleksa Krsmanovic.
Holbrooke, the U.S. assistant secretary of state who helped broker the peace accord in Dayton, Ohio, was due in Sarajevo on Sunday for meetings with Bosnian officials, military commanders and Western diplomats.
The Serbs’ severing contact with NATO has disrupted many plans, from negotiations on prisoner exchanges to the demarcation of buffer zones - important elements of the peace agreement.
Holbrook has called the crisis the most serious since the peace agreement was signed in mid-December.
Asked about Serb threats to boycott the peace process, Holbrooke replied that Smith, “is authorized to use whatever is necessary to carry through the implementation of Dayton.”