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Prisoners Released As Deadline Neared

The Bosnian government released 109 Serb prisoners just before a midnight Saturday deadline, marching them in a column toward a darkened bridge and waiting relatives on Serb territory.

Earlier, delays in the promised release of prisoners brought threats that further stalling by the formerly warring parties in Bosnia would be met by harsh international sanctions.

Authorities set a new eight-day deadline for release of remaining prisoners of war, while still threatening the economic sanctions.

“The time for words has passed. We expect deeds,” Carl Bildt, who is overseeing the implementation of civilian elements of the Dayton peace accord, said after representatives of countries enforcing the peace agreement met Saturday in Moscow.

During talks last week in Geneva, leaders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia agreed to release all remaining prisoners of war by midnight Saturday.

According to the Red Cross, a total of 152 prisoners had been scheduled for release by all parties. Another 62 prisoners were being held for war crimes investigations.

There was no immediate word on whether the Bosnian Serbs had released their prisoners, as promised.

Colum Murphy, a spokesman for Bildt, noted that the Bosnian government still is holding 26 prisoners in Tuzla, and called the partial release unacceptable under the peace accord.

“This does not constitute compliance, and measures to ensure compliance are being considered,” Murphy said.

Reporters were mostly kept at a distance from the men released Saturday night, who were bused from their Tuzla jail about 30 miles to a checkpoint ran by Swedish soldiers near Gracanica.

Almost all in the group had been captured in the final weeks of Bosnia’s war last fall. The few who did speak to reporters said they had been treated well during their six-month jail stay.

“I hope somebody’s waiting for me,” said a nervous Zeljko Goric, 40.

The last in the column was Bolo Misic, wounded in battle Sept. 12 and captured. He had a metal brace on his leg and was carried on a stretcher by four fellow prisoners. He said he had been cared for in a Tuzla hospital.

At the Gracanica bridge, Red Cross representative Laurent Fellay said the 109 men were all that the Red Cross had expected then. He said he expected further prisoner releases in the coming hours and days, but declined to give any details.

If the releases do not go through, said an official, speaking on condition of anonymity, foreign donors may cut financial aid to Bosnia.

The NATO-led peacekeeping force and the Red Cross had both urged the factions to honor their pledge on the POWs, an important step in restoring peace to Bosnia after nearly four years of war.

In Pale, the Serbs’ headquarters near Sarajevo, a senior Bosnian Serb leader said he was willing to cooperate, as long as the Red Cross guarantees that the Muslims and Croats were also releasing prisoners.

“The moment (the Red Cross) announces that the prisoners should be released, we will do that,” Momcilo Krajisnik said. “But we cannot allow (ourselves) to be cheated.”

Pierre Krahenbohl, the head of the Red Cross mission in Bosnian Serb territory, blamed the delay on technicalities, and said it was not clear when the release would take place.

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali accused the Muslim-led Bosnian government of contributing to the exodus of Serb civilians from Sarajevo by failing to assure their safety.