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Rocky Start for Hand-Over in Sarajevo

Bosnia: Serbs see worst fears realized as Muslims assert control in suburb.

February 25, 1996|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VOGOSCA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The Bosnian capital, splintered by more than three years of war, took a historic step toward reunification Friday when Bosnian Serb police in this suburb of Sarajevo handed over law enforcement authority to the Muslim-led Bosnian government.

But the first peaceful exchange of authority in Sarajevo since Bosnia lurched into civil war in 1992 fell far short of easing tensions between the formerly warring sides.

The transfer in this Serb-populated suburb--the first of five being re-integrated into Sarajevo, and one now virtually abandoned by frightened residents--was marred by political insensitivity on the part of incoming Bosnian officials, violations by the new Muslim-Croat federation police and fumbling by U.N. mediators charged with organizing the hand-over.

"It has gone wrong," said Johannes Preisinger, German ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina, who chastised U.N. High Representative Carl Bildt during a chance meeting at the town hall here. "This is the first transfer and it should go according to the rules."

In one of the most disturbing incidents, newly arrived police forced their way into the office of the outgoing Bosnian Serb mayor and ordered him to leave, even though he is legally allowed to remain in the municipal building until mid-March.

The police officers forced open locked doors, smashed pictures and evicted the mayor's staff, witnesses said, but Bosnian Serb Mayor Rajko Koprivica refused to budge. Police backed off only when North Atlantic Treaty Organization soldiers from Italy formed a protective circle around his desk, the mayor said.

The federation police, under rules established by the U.N. International Police Task Force, were not supposed to patrol in Vogosca without international monitors accompanying them. But witnesses said the officers who entered the mayor's office were unescorted, and federation police could be seen blocking access to the town hall with no international police in the area.

"There are a lot of things that need to be sorted out," said Bildt, who oversees nonmilitary provisions of the Dayton, Ohio, peace accord. "From the technical point of view it went all right, but the deterioration from the political authorities has been a problem."

The incident in the mayor's office followed a tense moment when Koprivica refused to remove a Bosnian Serb flag hanging outside the town hall. Under the peace agreement, Muslim city officials do not take over civilian operations until March 19, keeping the town under Bosnian Serb political rule in the meantime.

But impatient Muslim officials, including incoming Mayor Muhamed Kozadra, climbed into a cherry picker and removed the flag, allowing it to drop to the ground. As the Bosnian flag was clasped in its place, a crowd of Bosnian officials and police officers applauded below as Kozadra raised his arms in triumph.

A dozen Bosnian Serb residents stared in humiliation from a bus of refugees parked across the street.

"Our land. Their flag," said Borka Lalic, a young mother of three who began weeping when she looked at the flagpole. "They promised this wouldn't happen before March 19. I didn't want to be here for this."

The exchange of authority here had been presented as a gauge of international resolve in guaranteeing a multiethnic Bosnian capital: If things went well in Vogosca, officials said, it would help dispel fears among Bosnian Serbs in the other suburbs, perhaps heading off any further exodus.

But the indelicate handling of the inaugural event, some Bosnian Serbs remaining here said Friday, confirmed many of their worst fears about their future under Muslim-Croat rule. Only about 2,000 of the suburb's 13,000 wartime residents stayed to find out, and most of them dare not leave their homes.

"I couldn't sleep all night, I was so afraid," said Danilo Cerjekovic, his bloodshot eyes brimming with tears.

Political leaders from both sides blamed Bildt for not doing enough to prevent the turmoil. Maksim Stanisic, president of the five Serbian suburbs, dressed down the former Swedish prime minister during a candid meeting in Koprivica's third-floor office.

"I would like to see some results," said Stanisic. "The situation is only getting worse."

Out in the hallway, Bildt was ambushed by Kozadra, who complained that the high representative has turned down repeated requests to meet with him. At Kozadra's insistence, the men stood in the corridor--broken glass on the floor and the stench of vandalized restrooms in the air--discussing details of the political transfer for the first time.

As Bildt left, having successfully arranged a meeting between the two mayors for Saturday, both sides began talking face to face in the hallway--their first such encounter since before the war. Amid all the problems, the common issue they found to talk about was their frustration with Bildt.

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