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U.S. Forces Serbs From Frontline

February 19, 1996

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ American troops, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, forced Bosnian Serb tanks and armored vehicles to abandon front-line positions held in violation of the peace accord, NATO said today.

``Time to go, boys,″ U.S. soldiers told the Serb commanders of a mechanized brigade in northern Bosnia, according to NATO spokesman Maj. Herve Gourmelon.

The operation was part of a crackdown by the NATO-led peace force on unregistered weapons. The Bosnian peace accord requires warring parties to remove or register any heavy weapons remaining in a six-mile demilitarization zone on each side of front lines.

The crackdown began Friday and continued through the weekend, as Balkan leaders met with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke to try to rescue the Bosnian peace.

The presidents of Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia breathed new life into the accord by promising to reunify the divided cities of Sarajevo and Mostar and apparently agreeing on rules for pursuing war criminals.

The leaders also agreed to hold more talks; the first session was scheduled today on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Adriatic Sea.

And Bosnian Serb leaders said they would resume contacts with NATO, suspended after the government detained two Bosnian Serb officers on suspicion of war crimes and turned them over to an international tribunal for investigation.

NATO said U.S. tanks and armored vehicles escorted a Serb convoy of 26 T-55 tanks, 16 armored personnel vehicles and army trucks from their positions on Sunday.

Witnesses said Black Hawk and Apache helicopters backed up the ground force. The tanks were escorted from positions near Modrica, 45 miles north of the main U.S. base at Tuzla, to Derventa, 10 miles further west.

Gourmelon reported several similar operations throughout Bosnia, saying weapons belonging to the Muslim-led government also were removed. No further details were immediately available.

Holbrooke said nothing was given to the Serbs in exchange for their agreement to resume contact with the NATO-led force implementing peace.

The only Bosnian Serb present in Rome was the moderate prime minister, Rajko Kasagic, an ally of President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, who also attended. The two men have no way to force other Bosnian Serb leaders to abide by their pledges.

Holbrooke suggested Sunday that U.N. sanctions imposed against the Bosnian Serbs during the war may be lifted if they comply with the peace accord.

The Croatian foreign minister, Mate Granic, indicated a weekend agreement on divided Mostar may help to overcome Bosnian Croats’ objections to the peace plan’s requirement that they share control of Mostar with Muslims.

The participants in Rome agreed to reduce the size of a neutral zone in the center of the southwestern city.

If the city cannot function, then that failure would cast doubt on the future of the peace accord: The city is considered a litmus test of the Muslim-Croat federation, which is to govern half of Bosnia and was designed as a counterweight to the Bosnian Serb republic.

Hundreds of panicked Serbs fled the grim industrial suburb of Hadzici, west of Sarajevo, this weekend as the summit reaffirmed they must relinquish those areas to the Muslim-led government.

This weekend’s flight was the first organized exodus in buses provided by Serb authorities.

``We’re taking everything, even the traffic signs,″ said Slavko Pusara, a secretary in the Hadzici mayor’s office. ``How can we trust NATO? They bombed us too.″

NATO launched air strikes on Bosnian Serb facilities over the summer and now leads the 60,000-member international peace force.

Milosevic and Kasagic urged the Serbs to stay put and trust international supervision of government police, who begin taking control of Serb Sarajevo next weekend.

But Radovan Karadzic, still asserting his leadership of the Bosnian Serbs despite his indictment on war crimes charges, accused the world of forcing his people out and said no guarantees could make Serbs stay in the Bosnian capital after it is reunified March 19.

``I’m afraid it’s too late for the Serbs in Sarajevo,″ Karadzic told The Associated Press. ``Many of them have left already, and many more will leave in the days to come.″

Tens of thousands of Serbs have said they will flee. Many say they fear retribution for nearly four years of Serb siege and bombardment of Sarajevo. But others this weekend reported being under orders to flee.

Karadzic’s comments signaled continued defiance of the peace agreement negotiated for him by his former mentor, Milosevic. The accord bars indicted war crime suspects such as Karadzic from office in postwar Bosnia.

Yet Karadzic promised to abide by agreements at the Rome conference.

The Rome meeting also reportedly yielded new rules for arresting war criminals, which would prevent random arrests by the government but also expand NATO powers for such detentions.

But Yugoslavia’s defense minister, Pavle Bulatovic, reiterated in an interview published today in Belgrade that his country will not extradite any war crimes suspects from its republics of Serbia and Montenegro. That would be against the Yugoslav constitution, Bulatovic said.

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