Exchange of prisoners by Bosnian factions resumes after lapse International pressure backs up peace accord


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Bowing to international pressure, Bosnia's rival factions resumed the exchange of prisoners yesterday after a week of haggling and suspicion.

About 250 Bosnian Serb prisoners were released by Croatian and Bosnian government forces, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced, with most of them boarding buses at the Sarajevo airport and then being driven to Serbian-controlled territory.

The Bosnian government said it intended to release all prisoners in its detention centers by today.

The Red Cross estimates that there are at least 395 more prisoners to be released, mainly from detention centers run by Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb forces.

Under the Dayton peace agreement, all prisoners were to be freed by Jan. 19, but the exchanges stopped after the Bosnian government said the Bosnian Serbs had yet to account for 24,000 missing civilians. These include 4,000 the Bosnian government said were seen arrested by the Bosnian Serbs.

Although the three factions pledged to resume prisoner releases on Friday after a meeting in the Bosnian Serbs' capital, Pale, the Red Cross said it doubted the sides would meet the deadline for today.

"This process will definitely not be completed today, and there is a long way to go," said Jacques Demaio, coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Sarajevo. The exchange of prisoners became a focal point for United States and European Union officials after the exchanges were halted.

A European Union official, Hans van den Broek, warned the parties to the conflict that they would get little aid in rebuilding their devastated country unless they met such commitments.

"All parties that are being assisted by the international donor community should be committed to a fair and loyal implementation of all the elements of the peace agreement," he said.

While such threats led to the agreement to resume the exchanges, as of last night the Bosnian Serbs still held an estimated 150 prisoners, while Croatian forces kept 50 Bosnian Serbs they said had committed crimes against humanity.

The Bosnian government is also holding 195 Bosnian Serb soldiers and continues to deny the Red Cross access to its prison in Tuzla where other prisoners might be held, Mr. Demaio said.

As the buses rolled into Sarajevo airport for the prisoners released there, many Serbian soldiers lifted their arms in victory signs, but most stood silent and haggard, only a slight smile creeping across their faces.

Miroljub Torbica said he was on his way to Belgrade to see his only son after sitting in a Bosnian government prison for nearly four years. He said that he would like to stay in Sarajevo, his home town.

"I was part of the Yugoslav army," he said from his bus seat. "It was my job. My concern is that my friends in Sarajevo will not understand that, they think we are all bad."

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