NEWS ANALYSIS : Sarajevo Deeply Split Amid Reunification

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While elderly residents battled arson fires set by roaming gangs and NATO troops looked on, Bosnia's new reality was coming into focus Sunday: The ideal of ethnic reconciliation appears moribund, and the U.S.-brokered peace agreement that ended the Bosnian war may face a similar fate.

On Tuesday, the last Serb-held district of Sarajevo switches to Muslim-Croat government control, completing the reunification of a once-fractured capital that nevertheless has driven most Serbs to flight and left non-Serbs terrorized.

Like the other Serb-held districts before it, Grbavica, near downtown Sarajevo, was the scene Sunday of widespread looting, dramatic escapes from dozens of fires and the reported assaults of non-Serbs.

As Sarajevo is put back together, the Muslims and Croats who are supposed to be allies and share power fall further apart: On Sunday, angry Muslims blocked a principal southern highway after Croats blocked them the day before; a Muslim-Croat police force has yet to patrol together despite a desperate need for law enforcement. The stated problem? The color of their uniforms.

The Bosnia-Herzegovina that is emerging is divided more clearly than ever along ethnic lines--something that the international community said it wanted to avoid but that cynics might say was intended all along by last year's Dayton, Ohio, peace agreement, and most certainly by the warring factions.

"We still have a situation where the forces of ethnic separation are stronger than the forces of ethnic re-integration," former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, the senior civilian official in charge of implementing the accord, said over the weekend in a somber assessment of the 3-month-old process.

By most accounts, the peace process has succeeded in the military goal of separating enemy armies, thanks to the presence of about 55,000 NATO-led troops. But the civilian efforts have stalled, and promised reconstruction money has yet to appear in significant amounts.

Yet it is the Sarajevo fiasco that has raised the most troubling questions about Bosnia's future and the ability of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to enforce peace, diplomats and analysts say.

The hand-over of the Serb-held Sarajevo districts to Muslim-Croat control has been accompanied by looting and arson that NATO troops, executing a narrowly defined mandate, and unarmed U.N. police monitors have been unable or unwilling to stop. On Sunday, Grbavica experienced the same violence.

Gangs of young Bosnian Serb men roamed the neighborhood, a front-line hotbed during the war that is now a dreary collection of shelled, abandoned buildings and fetid trash heaps. Fewer than 1,000 people remain, aid officials estimated. Property has been ripped off; looters sanctioned by Bosnian Serb officials have gone so far as to haul away electrical transformers, causing much of Grbavica to lose power and plunge into frightening darkness.

By nightfall Sunday, gangs had ignited more than 32 fires in an effort to deprive returning Muslims of property and terrorize the people, Serbs and non-Serbs alike, who have stayed.

At one five-story apartment building, a white-haired woman leaned from her fourth-floor window and struggled to splash water from a tin can onto flames consuming the wooden roof above her. Fiery embers spewed through the air and explosions rang out as she and other residents fought the blaze that spread the length of the building.

"We begged for help, but no one came," wept one of the residents, Ljilja Bukvic, a Croat. "We are totally abandoned now."

The building was occupied by 10 families who had intended to resist the pressure and stay in Grbavica--until the arsonists had their way.

"Of course I was going to stay--I did nothing wrong," said Dobrila Cukovic, a 40-year-old Serb who fled with her month-old baby from her burning building. "Now I do not know what we will do."

The woman stood on the muddy sidewalk with two bags she'd managed to pack. Tiny pink pajamas embroidered with a bunny lay on top of the heap.

Italian and French NATO troops passed by in armored cars; in a couple of cases, they rescued elderly residents, but no firefighters were in sight. Grbavica's Serbian fire department was not interested; Sarajevo's Muslim fire department was scared.

The NATO contingent arrested 12 suspected arsonists--and then turned them over to the Bosnian Serb police, who reportedly released them.

Also Sunday, two elderly women were reported to have been beaten by young Serbian thugs. This follows the murder of one Muslim woman and the rape of two others--ages 76 and 74--in recent weeks, according to U.N. aid officials.

The Bosnian Serb exodus from the suburbs was fomented by hard-line Bosnian Serb leaders whose goal has always been ethnic segregation, but it has been exacerbated by the failure of the Muslim-led Bosnian government to make Serbs feel safe enough to remain in Sarajevo. Muslim gangs added to the problem by rampaging last week through the suburb of Ilidza after it changed hands. NATO let it all happen.

The exodus will have a disastrous ripple effect: Bosnian Serb authorities are already using the creation of new Serbian refugees as a pretext for refusing to allow the return of Muslim and Croatian refugees to the homes they were expelled from in Serb-held territory. The right of more than 2 million refugees to go home had been established as a fundamental element of the peace accord.

"I don't see the political direction that supports the Dayton accords," the commander of the NATO peace mission in Bosnia, U.S. Navy Adm. Leighton W. Smith, said in an interview with a group of reporters.

"No amount of work on NATO's part is going to be seen as successful, because if the civilian sides go belly up, the possibility for peace here diminishes dramatically."

Smith declined to answer questions about whether the failure of parts of the peace agreement would force NATO to extend its stay in Bosnia beyond the one-year timetable. But it seems clear that NATO's presence is required for elections, and it is not clear if voting can happen on schedule.

The leaders of the three countries that signed the Dayton accord meet today in Geneva with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher in an effort to salvage the peace; it is the second such emergency meeting in a month.

Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic conceded Sunday that the notion of a multiethnic Sarajevo has taken a body blow, in part because of last week's Muslim looting and harassment of Serbs in Ilidza.

Izetbegovic's special representative, Muhamed Sacirbey, blamed alleged Muslim misbehavior on Bosnian Serb provocation but conceded that falling into the same pattern of abuse will have long-term consequences for peace.

"If we can't make a multiethnic society work in Sarajevo, then how can we make it work in Banja Luka?" he said, referring to the Bosnian Serbs' largest city, from which thousands of Muslims and Croats were expelled.

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