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Serbs Flee Capital As Muslim-Led Government Prepares To Take Charge

February 22, 1996

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Bosnia’s president was rushed to the hospital today with unspecified heart problems, and his colleagues convened an emergency session to decide who should take over his duties.

The terse announcement of President Alija Izetbegovic’s hospitalization, released by his office, said only that he suffered sudden cardiac problems this morning and was hospitalized for examination and treatment.

But Bosnia’s collective presidency, which the 70-year-old Izetbegovic heads, convened an emergency session to decide who should be in charge while he is hospitalized, indicating his condition could be serious.

In the past, Izetbegovic has made clear that he would like his vice-president and close ally, Ejup Ganic, to take over his duties if he were ever unable to function.

The president was in stable condition and will have to remain in the hospital, said Ismet Grbo, a spokesman for Izetbegovic’s ruling Party for Democratic Action. He did not estimate how long the president would have to be hospitalized.

Sources in the governing party said Izetbegovic suffered a heart attack during Bosnia’s war. A source in the Swedish Foreign Ministry who travels frequently to Sarajevo said on condition of anonymity that Izetbegovic has not been well for a year and that he had heart problems.

Izetbegovic was elected president of Bosnia in 1990. He reluctantly declared support for an independent Bosnia after Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia seceded from the Yugoslav federation.

Dominant Muslims and Croats voted in favor of independence in early 1992, touching off a rebellion by Bosnia’s Serbs who wanted to remain in Serb-led Yugoslavia. War broke out in April 1992 and continued through last year, leaving at least 200,000 people dead or missing and more than 2 million homeless.

The fighting ended in December after Izetbegovic and the presidents of Croatia and Serbia signed an accord that divides Bosnia roughly in half between a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb republic.

Implementation of the accord has foundered in recent weeks over war crimes allegations and the gradual reunification of Sarajevo under Muslim-led government rule, set to begin on Friday.

On Wednesday, Bosnian Serb leaders offered to restore military ties with NATO peacekeepers, severed over the arrest of two Serb officers on war crimes charges. At the same time, Serbs incited by their leaders continued to flee Sarajevo rather than come under the control of their former enemies.

All mountain routes through Serb-held territory were completely blocked by snow, jackknifed trucks and vehicles streaming out of the city.

Some Serbs, unable to find transportation, loaded possessions on their backs and trekked through the snow.

Hundreds of Serb trucks and buses lined a snowy road into Sarajevo, hoping to cross the government-held part of the city to Serb-held areas to help evacuate Serbs.

The NATO-led peace force at first refused an appeal by Serb authorities to escort vehicles through government-held territory because it would violate the peace accord’s provisions for free movement.

But NATO relented this morning, and Italian armored vehicles led seven Serb cars and trucks out of the Serb suburb of Grbavica to the outskirts of the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale, east of Sarajevo. Then they turned around and escorted several dozen empty trucks along a transit road through government-held territory into the Serb suburbs.

Between 20,000 and 40,000 Serbs have fled the capital since the accord was initialed in November, angry at losing any claim to Bosnia’s symbolic heart and afraid of government reprisals for 3 1/2 years of Serb attacks on government-held parts of the city.

The latest exodus has been spurred by Serb leaders who played on their people’s fears of life under a former enemy, and urged them to leave before the phased handover of Serb-held districts begins.

The northern suburb of Vogosca is the first of the five Serb-held districts around the capital to be handed over to government.

A supermarket, two homes and an abandoned factory in Vogosca were destroyed overnight by fires apparently set by residents determined to leave nothing valuable behind when former foes take over.

But despite the fires, there were no signs that Serbs would resist the transfer on Friday.

The Bosnian Serb leadership, meanwhile, sent a statement to the NATO-led peace force late Wednesday, saying the civilian and military authorities would restore ``full cooperation″ with the force and international civilian authorities.

Serb civilian leaders had already promised to restore ties, severed after the government arrested two Serb officers on suspicion of war crimes and extradited them to an international tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

The Serbs’ stated willingness to cooperate again with NATO may be in response to a statement Wednesday from the peace force’s commander, U.S. Adm. Leighton Smith, that said Bosnia’s factions have complied with the early stages of the military aspects of the peace accord.

That opens the way for the suspension of U.N. sanctions against Bosnian Serbs, imposed in September 1994 after the Serbs rejected an earlier peace plan.

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