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Balkan Leaders Agree to Let Families Return Home

By Art Pine
Los Angeles Times

In another goodwill gesture in the Balkans peace talks, Bosnia, Croatia and the Serb nationalists have agreed to allow several hundred displaced families to return to their original homes, the State Department said Thursday.

The agreement, described by the delegations as a "first step," came in a session with the presidents of Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia hosted by the U.S. and German delegations to the talks. Envoys from the United States and its allies are mediating the negotiations.

The negotiations are being held in a barracks and hotel compound at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Representatives of the warring factions have agreed to channel their public statements through the State Department in Washington.

Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman, speaking on behalf of all three factions, called the step "limited progress," but said it "indicates to us that these countries have a seriousness of purpose on this issue."

The accord marked the second such goodwill step since the talks began Wednesday, when Serbia and Croatia announced they had agreed to speed up discussions on their dispute over which country owns Eastern Slavonia.

The factions fighting in Bosnia are represented in Dayton by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. The chief U.S. mediator is Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke.

U.S. officials said the talks went slowly Thursday, as expected. It was the first full day of negotiations, with the Americans distributing four draft agreements covering central issues and the delegates meeting in small groups.

The drafts included a general framework for the final accord, a plan for handling new elections, a proposal for dealing with outstanding constitutional issues and an accord on how to separate opposing armed forces and paramilitary units.

News agencies also reported that Bosnia's Izetbegovic pressed the issue of Serb war crimes and called for Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and army commander Ratko Mladic, both indicted as war criminals, to be turned over to authorities.

U.S. officials also pressed Milosevic about the whereabouts of Christian Science Monitor correspondent David Rohde, who has been missing since Sunday afternoon and is believed to be held by the Bosnian Serbs. Burns said the Clinton administration had intensified its efforts to find Rohde and secure his return. He said U.S. ambassadors in Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb had been ordered to work on the issue full-time.

The agreement on the return of displaced persons to Bosnia and Croatia provides for only a limited number of resettlements in Bosnia. Starting Thursday, authorities will begin to return 200 Bosnian families to Jajce and 200 Croatian families to Bogojno.

In a week, officials will start resettling 100 Bosnian families to Stolac and 100 Croatian families to Travnik - both villages near Mostar in southern Bosnia. Presumably, any further resettlements must be worked out in future accords.

Burns also said the United States was dispatching John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for human rights, to return to Bosnia this weekend to renew his attempts to visit Banja Luka, Sanski Most and Srebrenica to investigate reports of human-rights abuses.

Shattuck met with all three delegations in Dayton on Thursday in advance of his trip.

Officials said the bulk of the talks are being carried on in small-group sessions with only a few delegates at a time. Besides the United States, mediators include Russia, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union.

Burns said in his briefing that the format of the talks - in which the three presidents are being kept at the Air Force base under intense prodding - has created considerable pressure on Milosevic, Izetbegovic and Tudjman to reach agreement.

"There certainly is pressure here," Burns snapped. "There ought to be pressure - after four years of warfare, a quarter of a million people dead, the United States and our partners have every reason to put pressure to these parties to compromise."