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Serbian President Milosevic Approves Truce Agreement

By Blaine Harden
The Washington Post

BELGRADE

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who has been singled out by the United States as the chief agent behind the bloody civil war in neighboring Bosnia-Hercegovina, gave his personal approval Thursday night to an agreement to halt the fighting in that former Yugoslav republic.

The truce was brokered earlier Thursday by European Community mediators in meetings with leaders of Bosnia's warring Muslim, Croat and Serb communities, who agreed to stop shooting and return to talks aimed at dividing Bosnia into ethnic cantons.

Heavy fighting across the republic in the past three days -- particularly in Sarajevo, Bosnia's battle-scarred capital -- had seemed to be building toward all-out civil war, but the violence lessened significantly Thursday. The truce accord was buttressed by a cease-fire pledge from the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, which has been openly supporting Serb militia forces in attacks on Muslim-majority towns across Bosnia.

As dusk fell, however, small-arms and mortar fire erupted between local Serbs and Muslims on the outskirts of Sarajevo, near the city's airport, news services in the capital reported. "The cease-fire is not respected," Bosnian radio declared.

The Associated Press said several buildings and trees were set aflame in the firefight and that a number of stray rounds whizzed by the Bosna Hotel in central Sarajevo, where the EC delegation is staying. Observers said it was not immediately clear if the shooting marked the collapse of the new accord or a minor violation that can be smoothed over Friday.

As the Yugoslav region has been wracked over the past year by the bloodiest fighting in Europe since World War II, internationally brokered peace agreements have meant little without the backing of the army and the enthusiastic support of Milosevic.

The Serbian president, a hard-line Marxist and strident Serb nationalist, has been accused by Western governments of grossly exaggerating the ethnic threat to the Serb minority in Bosnia and, previously, in Croatia, where a Serb-Croat war has taken more than 10,000 lives. Western critics say Milosevic has used these claims as a pretext for armed intervention that has allowed Serb forces to seize large tracts of territory in both republics.

But Thursday night, after 10 days of scalding American criticism and concerted Western threats to isolate Serbia as a pariah state, Milosevic gave a clear signal that he is worried by the prospect of economic isolation and that he now wants the fighting in Bosnia to end. "We care that the war in this country should stop so that we can turn to our peacetime and everyday worries and to the revitalization of the economy," Milosevic said.

Although he rejected well documented charges that his government has used paramilitary groups operating from Serbia to prosecute the war in Bosnia, Milosevic said his government will do its best from now on to stop "illegal" groups from leaving Serbia to take part in combat elsewhere.

The announcement of the truce, as well as Milosevic's effusive support for it, comes after more than two weeks of sizable territorial conquests by combined forces of insurgent Bosnian Serbs, militia units from Serbia and the Serb-led Yugoslav army. Western diplomats say the Serb side appears to have gained on-the-ground control of about two-thirds of Bosnia, including at least seven Muslim-majority cities.

Those gains coincide roughly with the professed territorial ambitions of the most militant of Bosnia's Serbs, who make up about 31 percent of the republic's 4.4 million population. Nearly all these gains have come at the expense of Bosnia's poorly armed Slavic Muslims, who comprise 44 percent of the population. In most encounters with advancing Serb forces, Muslims have simply run away, and two weeks of fighting have generated more than 170,000 refugees -- most of them Muslims -- as well as an estimated 200 dead.

Sarajevo, which Serb nationalists have vowed to partition as Beirut was partitioned during the civil war in Lebanon, is the one principal military objective that has not yet fallen under Serb control, Western diplomats say. In running street battles that raged there for three days this week, Muslim-dominated police units and territorial defense forces managed to put up stiff resistance to Serb forces attacking from the surrounding hills.

Independent observers in Bosnia agree that prior to the recent outbreak of heavy fighting, the Serb minority there had no reason to fear ethnic discrimination, let alone ethnic violence. The Muslim-led government in Sarajevo had given the Serbs elaborate assurances of political and civil rights, and Milosevic acknowledged as much to U.S. diplomats in private meetings this month.

But using the alleged threat of Muslim- and Croat-inspired genocide against local Serbs, Serb forces in early April began a well-orchestrated campaign of violence and terror across much of Bosnia. The attacks intensified after the United States and European Community recognized Bosnia's secession from Yugoslavia -- a former six-republic federation now essentially reduced to an alliance of its largest and smallest members, Serbia and Montenegro.

In his remarks Thursday, Milosevic labeled all accounts of Serb-sponsored aggression in Bosnia as "false facts."