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Serbs Pledge to Withdraw Artillery from Sarajevo

By Roy Gutman
ZAGREB, Croatia

NATO temporarily halted the bombing of Bosnian Serb military targets Thursday after Serb leaders pledged in writing to a U.S. envoy to withdraw tanks and their biggest artillery pieces from around Sarajevo, U.N. sources said.

Richard Holbrooke, an assistant secretary of state, called the offer a sign of progress and traveled to Mostar to deliver it to Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic after first showing it to Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.

But the plan, drafted in Belgrade by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, would remove only 50 percent to 70 percent of the Serbs' artillery pieces, a U.N. official said. And it would not completely lift the 3{-year siege of Sarajevo.

The pledge thus fell short of a joint demand by the United Nations and NATO for unconditional removal of all 300 heavy weapons that now threaten Sarajevo. "It does not seem to be sufficient," said a NATO official in Brussels, Belgium. "Maybe the Bosnian Serbs are putting something on the table, but they will have a fallback position." He said NATO "is not so desperate that it has to take any offer." NATO's position was that "we want a total pullout. We didn't see this in terms of Serb guns bein g left inside the exclusion zone," spokesman Jamie Shea said. NATO is expected to decide on the plan, perhaps as soon as Friday.

As Holbrooke's talks with Izetbegovic went into the night, the Bosnian Serbs came under renewed military pressure by ground forces in northwestern Bosnia. The Bosnian army and its Bosnian Croat allies said their troops continued advancing along several fronts towards Banja Luka, the biggest Serb-held city, with some 140,000 inhabitants. Wednesday, the combined government forces announced the capture of the strategic towns of Donji Vakuf and Jajce in an advance that captured more than 700 square miles of territory in less than four days and sent up to 50,000 civilians fleeing toward Banja Luka.

Thursday, the Bosnian Army V Corps based in Bihac announced it had entered the Serb-held city of Bosanski Petrovac.

NATO's 2-week-old bombing campaign has targeted Bosnian Serb army command and communications facilities, fuel depots, ammunition dumps, air defense, and vehicle repair plants and has clearly hurt the once mighty Bosnian Serb army. Other than in Donji Vakuf, where the Bosnian government said it had surrounded 6,000 Serb troops, there was little sign of serious resistance.

The possible breakthrough in easing the Sarajevo siege left many questions concerning a broader peace settlement.

Holbrooke last week announced an agreement on principles to divide Bosnia roughly 50-50 along ethnic lines between the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serbs. At the time, the Serbs held some 70 percent of the territory, but the government's lightning offensive may have cut that to as little as 60 percent.

Officials say the military setbacks may have prompted the sudden reversal by the Bosnian Serb leadership, which had refused to remove heavy weapons from Sarajevo unless the Bosnian government agreed to a countrywide cease-fire patrolled by NATO forces.

^(Optional add end)

Under the threat of NATO airstrikes, the Bosnian Serbs promised once before, in February 1994, to withdraw their heavy weapons, and they have a major credibility problem because they not only failed to carry out their promise but several months ago stepped up the armed siege around Sarajevo. Underlining the seriousness of their intentions, the latest offer was signed by military commander Ratko Mladic, political leader Radovan Karadzic, and two other Bosnian Serb leaders and witnessed by Milosevic and

President Momir Bulatovic of another part of the former Yugoslavia, Montenegro, U.N. officials said.

Besides offering to remove most heavy weapons, the Serbs said they would allow the besieged Sarajevo airport to open to all air traffic within 24 hours of a signed agreement, with its operation under U.N. control. And they agreed to open all roads in and out of Sarajevo to U.N. and humanitarian aid vehicles - but not civilian traffic.

They set as a condition that the Bosnian army's small stock of heavy weapons in Sarajevo must be identified and placed under international supervision. Bosnian officials said that would not present special problems to their government.