Test Flight Lands at Sarajevo Airport, U.N. Aid Flights to Follow
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Bosnian Serbs permitted a plane carrying the French defense minister to land at Sarajevo’s airport today and said they were beginning their withdrawal of heavy weapons.
The Serb rebels appeared to be fulfilling their part of a bargain with Western powers, which agreed to suspend NATO air attacks on Serb positions if the rebels stopped threatening the capital with their artillery.
The bargain also gave new impetus to a U.S. plan to end the war. U.S. and European officials met today in Geneva to discuss the next move toward peace.
Three tanks, three mortars and two 105-mm howitzers were pulled from Lukavica, a few miles south of Sarajevo. The convoy was headed away from the capital but it was unclear whether the weapons were taken 12.5 miles from Sarajevo, the limit set by NATO. Bosnian Serb soldiers weren’t allowed to speak with reporters observing the withdrawal.
However, NATO commanders said there were signs heavy weapons were being gathered together. Adm. Leighton Smith, the alliance’s commander for southern Europe, told reporters this afternoon that he expected Serbs to begin moving the weapons away from Sarajevo by tonight.
``We would like to see it progress a bit faster,″ Smith said, speaking to reports at NATO headquarters in Naples, Italy. There are an estimated 320 Serb heavy weapons around Sarajevo.
The agreement between the Serbs and Western powers aims to end the siege of the capital. NATO airstrikes were suspended for three days to give the Serbs a chance to comply. U.S. officials warn they could begin again if the Serbs renege.
The agreement was reached after more than two weeks of NATO airstrikes and artillery attacks by the U.N. rapid reaction force.
Earlier today, a French plane landed at Sarajevo airport and two U.S. relief convoys reached the city, testing two other areas of Thursday’s agreement.
Serbs also agreed Thursday to permit U.N. aid flights, suspended because planes were being shot at, and to allow the United Nations and international organizations to use a road into the besieged capital.
Along with French Defense Minister Charles Millon, the military plane was carrying a load of flour, the first aid flown to the Bosnian capital in five months. U.N. aid flights are to resume in earnest Saturday, when eight flights carrying relief supplies are scheduled from Ancona, Italy.
The two U.N. relief convoys, also carrying flour, reached Sarajevo without having to stop at checkpoints set up by the warring sides, a first since the Bosnian war began in 1992, said Ruth Marshall of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Serbs forced the airport’s closure in April by threatening U.N. planes. The Serbs also have not permitted regular road access to Sarajevo for months. That has forced diplomats and aid workers to use the treacherous road over Mount Igman at the risk of Serb attack.
Thursday’s accord also gave new impetus to a U.S. plan to end 40 months of war. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, who brokered the accord, met today in Geneva with European diplomats.
He said he would be watching the Serbs closely to see whether they fulfill their agreements.
``Are the heavy guns being withdrawn? Is the road being opened? Is the airport open?″ Holbrooke said. ``If there isn’t full compliance, the United States will urge immediate resumption by NATO of the air attacks.″
In Washington, President Clinton also stressed that airstrikes would resume if the Serbs do not end their siege of Sarajevo.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic went to Belgrade to sign the agreement on Sarajevo in the presence of President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, a U.N. statement said.
Milosevic, the most powerful politician in the region, is negotiating for the Bosnian Serbs.
The commitment was confirmed by Gen. Dragomir Milosevic, commander of Bosnian Serb forces around the city and no relation to the Serb leader. In the past, high-level agreements have been ignored on the front lines.
Some U.N. officials have criticized the section on heavy weapons withdrawal as too soft. Although NATO and the United Nations originally demanded that Serbs pull back all weapons with a caliber greater than 12.7 millimeters, the deal permits Serbs to keep artillery up to 100 mm around the city.
The Serbs, who want part of the capital, said the original demand would leave sections of the city they hold unprotected. The government insists on having all of Sarajevo.
The concession was sure to be seized on by critics who will accuse the international community of blinking again in a confrontation with the Serbs.
But the rebels seemed happy with the deal. Momcilo Krajisnik, the top aide to Karadzic, said it was the first step toward the ``just division of Sarajevo.″
``Should the Muslims attack Serb Sarajevo, our army will have to activate its heavy weapons, which will not be far away,″ Krajisnik told SRNA, the Bosnian Serb news agency.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Bosnian government was to refrain from offensives in or around Sarajevo.
The Serbs pulled some heavy weapons out of the Sarajevo area in February 1994 in response to a NATO ultimatum. That quieted the shelling of Sarajevo for months, but when no peace plan was put in place, Serbs raided U.N. depots where their weapons were stored and took them back.
The NATO attacks began on Aug. 30 after a Serb mortar attack on a Sarajevo market killed 38 people. They also helped to produce an accord last week among Bosnia’s warring parties over a possible future political arrangement.
Holbrooke’s plan would give the Muslim-led government and its Croat allies 51 percent of Bosnia, and the Serbs, who now have about two-thirds, would get 49 percent. There still is broad disagreement on who gets what land.