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Delegates, Journalists Jump the Fence to America’s Heartland

November 13, 1995

DAYTON, Ohio (AP) _ When delegates to the Bosnia peace talks need a break from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, they often head for the mall _ usually with a gaggle of foreign reporters not far behind.

Shopping malls, rare in Europe and unknown in the Balkans, provide a dizzying environment for people used to finding store goods too expensive or not even unavailable. Early Christmas decorations add to the mood.

``It’s amazing how cheap clothes are here,″ said a Yugoslav reporter as she sifted through racks of jackets at Abercrombie & Fitch, an outdoorwear store at the Fairborn shopping center just outside the base.

Asking that her name not be used, she admitted to spending more than $7,000 on clothes during the first few days of the conference. ``How can I resist when things are 50 percent cheaper than in Italy, not to mention that they don’t exist in Belgrade?″ she said.

Concluding their second week of rigorous negotiations behind the iron gates of Wright-Patterson, delegates have been making frequent forays into the neighboring community of Fairborn and into Dayton.

One delegate said participants to the secret talks feel they have been working around the clock. ``It’s no wonder people are trying to escape for a breather,″ he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

For most of the ``fence-jumpers″ _ as they jokingly refer to themselves _ this is a first look at an American heartland city. Most have been to the United States, but mainly to New York and Washington.

Delegates have been struck by the casual friendlessness of Dayton, a city of 180,000, and by the prices and array of things for sale. That’s particularly so of people from the former Yugoslavia, impoverished by years of war and international sanctions.

Last week, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who is considered the key figure in the search for a peace settlement, made news when he spent $275 for two pairs of Timberland loafers at the local mall.

Other popular items are children’s toys, tools and electronic equipment.

The shopping center also has become a favorite hunting ground for photographers and camera crews hoping to make contact with delegates.

Restaurants provide another sanctuary from the austere base housing and gray conference center where the talks are taking place.

Last week, chief U.S. negotiator Richard Holbrooke invited Milosevic and Presidents Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia to the Racquet Club, a members-only establishment on the top, 27th, floor of Dayton’s tallest building.

Several days later, French envoy Jacques Block organized a dinner for delegates at L’Auberge, a French restaurant in Dayton’s upscale Kettering district.

Reporters were kept well away by Secret Service agents and cooperating proprietors, who canceled the reporters’ reservations to ensure privacy. Other diners were frisked before being ushered into a separate dining area.

Although the air base has many recreational facilities, none of the Balkan leaders seems inclined to use them much. Only Tudjman, who occasionally plays tennis at home, reportedly took time off for a game of squash with Holbrooke _ which he won.

Izetbegovic accompanied his foreign minister, Muhamed Sacirbey, on a trip to Louisville, Ky., for a college football game between Tulane University, where Sacirbey played in the mid-1970s, and the University of Louisville.

Standing on the sidelines, Izetbegovic seemed puzzled as Sacirbey struggled to explain the rules.

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