Serbs ease hold on Sarajevo

March 18, 1994|By New York Times News Service

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The Bosnian government and Bosnian Serb leaders signed an agreement yesterday easing the Serbian stranglehold on Sarajevo for the first time in 23 months.

The pact would allow limited movement for people, food, and medicine across siege lines beginning Wednesday morning.

"This is a first, modest, and very important step," said Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. military force's civil-affairs chief, after witnessing the signing by Hasan Muratovic, a Bosnian government minister, and Momcilo Krajisnik, president of the Bosnian Serbs' Parliament.

Yesterday's agreement is the fruit of weeks of negotiation that took on momentum as a cease-fire has been put into effect, silencing all but desultory small-arms fire around the Sarajevo battle front.

Though dozens of cease-fire and freedom-of-movement accords have been stillborn, none has been worked out in the climate of a lasting cease-fire and none has had the detail of yesterday's agreement.

"We've persuaded the three armies that they're not going to make any more gains militarily," said a high-ranking U.N. military official.

"The people don't want any more war. And the leaders have run out of people for their armies, and their economies are in ruins. They've reached the culminating point."

But cease-fire violations here in the last 48 hours underscored the fragility of the process.

A Bosnian Serb opened fire yesterday on a streetcar packed with people as it passed the Holiday Inn, wounding at least one person.

Mr. Muratovic, the Bosnian official, was quick to point out that his government still officially considered Sarajevo to be under siege because the agreement leaves out commercial traffic and does not provide for the lifting of a Bosnian Serb blockade along the main highway to the Adriatic Sea.

Yesterday's agreement marks the latest step in a march toward peace that began last month when the Bosnian Serbs, under threat of air strikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, withdrew scores of artillery pieces they had used to pummel this city for 22 months.

The accord was signed at Sarajevo airport, and Mr. Muratovic and Mr. Krajisnik shook hands afterward in the first such public gesture between Bosnian government and Serbian leaders since the war began.

The accord paves the way for traffic, albeit restricted, to ply four routes in the area.

* A main road linking the government-controlled core of Sarajevo with central Bosnia through the Bosnian Serb-held suburbs of Vogosca and Ilijas to the Muslim-controlled town of Visoko.

* The front-line Brotherhood and Unity Bridge connecting downtown Sarajevo with the Bosnian Serb-held Grbavica neighborhood.

* A pair of roads through the U.N.-controlled Butmir Airport, one linking the Bosnian-controlled areas of Dobrinja and Butmir, the other joining the Bosnian Serb-held suburbs of Ilidza and Lukavica.

"We won't have to go underground like rats anymore," a Bosnian army officer said, referring to a "Great Escape"-style tunnel under the airport runway that has been the only secure route into and out of the city since last spring.

The tunnel will remain the Bosnian military's only access to the city, however, as the agreement forbids soldiers or military supplies to use the agreed access routes.

Until four weeks ago, warfare between the mostly Muslim Bosnian army and the Croatian militia blocked the Bosnian government's overland route from central Bosnia to the Adriatic.

But if a Muslim-Croatian cease-fire continues and a U.S.-brokered federation agreement between Bosnia's Muslims and Croats is signed today as scheduled, those barriers would be removed.

The road from central Sarajevo to the Bosnian government-controlled town of Visoko will clearly pose the greatest security challenge because it crosses about 12 miles of Bosnian Serb-held territory.

The road, the agreement says, will be open only to convoys of buses and trucks carrying relief supplies that will be escorted by U.N. military vehicles.

Bosnians wishing to travel the road must be approved by the Bosnian Serbs and subject themselves to a search, the agreement says.

In return for the Dobrinja-Butmir route, the Bosnians agreed to allow Bosnian Serbs to cross the airport between the suburbs of Ilidza and Lukavica.

Until now, Bosnian Serbs in Ilidza have had to circumnavigate the entire Sarajevo siege area to reach Lukavica, a trek that took the better part of a day.

The agreement binds each party to clear mines and booby traps from around the airport by tomorrow midnight so U.N. troops can secure the area and rebuild a small bridge along the Dobrinja-Butmir route in the village of Donji Kotorac, just south of the airport's eastern periphery.

The opening of the Brotherhood and Unity Bridge to pedestrian and vehicle traffic may clear the way for mass departures.

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