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Bosnian Serb Commander Severs Contact with NATO Peacekeepers

By Dean E. Murphy and Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina - The Bosnian Serb military commander angrily broke off contacts Thursday between his forces and the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, the latest - and perhaps most serious - threat to further implementation of the U.S.-brokered peace accord.

The move by Gen. Ratko Mladic, an indicted war crimes suspect who nonetheless commands the loyalty of the Bosnian Serb army, was denounced by NATO officials as unjustified and counterproductive.

The Bosnian Serb commander's declaration also invited unusually stern warnings from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that its peacekeepers, including nearly 20,000 Americans, will not stand idly by as the accord unravels on their watch.

"We have the authority, the force and the will to do the job," said Col. John Kirkwood, a spokesman for U.S. Adm. Leighton W. Smith, commander of NATO troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In a letter sent by fax to several top NATO officials, Mladic suspended all ties with NATO until the Muslim-led Bosnian government releases two Bosnian Serb officers and at least six soldiers detained since last month. Mladic also cut off all travel by Bosnian Serbs to territory controlled by the Muslim-Croat federation.

U.S. officials, worried by the Bosnian Serb pronouncement, said a high-level delegation will fly to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, this weekend in an attempt to defuse the escalating crisis, which has also led to a Bosnian Serb boycott of meetings with the Bosnian government.

The recent events mean that the Bosnian Serbs have effectively isolated themselves from the peace process at a time when consensus among the former warring sides is crucial to keeping implementation on track. NATO officials said Thursday that they will continue to hold meetings without the Bosnian Serbs but that such a strategy could have dire long-term consequences.

"This is serious business," said a Western diplomat in Sarajevo. "The timing is such that it could really derail things."

U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher called the presidents of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia to notify them of his decision to dispatch Richard Holbrooke, chief negotiator of the Dayton, Ohio, peace accord, back to the Balkans.

Holbrooke will be accompanied by John Shattuck, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, and Robert L. Gallucci, the special U.S. emissary in charge of implementing the agreement.

"The United States is sending a strong signal to all parties that we expect the Dayton accords to be fully implemented," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told reporters traveling with Christopher in Finland.