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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Holbrooke Urges POW Compliance

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Seeking to end a showdown over prisoner releases, the U.S. envoy who helped craft the Bosnian peace pact was back in Bosnia on Thursday muscling the government to meet a looming deadline on releasing POWs.

"Will there be full compliance?" said Richard C. Holbrooke. "Tune in."

Holbrooke applied pressure on the Bosnian leaders to free prisoners of war by the Friday deadline set in the peace accord. The Moslem-led government has refused to give up its war prisoners until Serbs account for about 20,000 people the government lists as missing, and most people believe are dead.

The release of about 900 POWs from all sides is the pact's first major milestone, along with withdrawal of warring sides to a four-kilometer buffer zone. The troop pull-back appears to be going well, but it could be overshadowed by failure to open prison-camp doors.

"We are insisting on full compliance," Holbrooke said after meeting with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and other officials.

He did not give spell out what consequences the government could face for refusal, saying only that NATO "has the authority ... to do whatever it feels necessary to accomplish the larger mission."

The authority of the NATO-led peace Implementation Force has been defined as limited to enforcing military aspects of the accord.

Holbrooke said he was leaving for Belgrade to meet with Serb leaders. He was in Sarajevo with other envoys from the Contact Group of major powers overseeing the peace process -- Germany, Russia, France and Britain.

Holbrooke stressed that the issue of missing soldiers and civilians should be dealt with after the first POW release. The Bosnian government and the Serbs are both asked to release more than 400 POWs each, and the remainder are held by Bosnian Croats.

"We are extremely concerned about the unaccounted for ... but it's clear the prisoner exchange issue and the full accounting for the missing are not linked issues," Holbrooke said.

An official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which drafted the list of prisoners, also appealed for accounting of missing people to come after POW releases.

"Linking the missing and prisoner releases can only be to the detriment of the prisoners who are waiting to get out," said Jacques de Maio.

But Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey continued to demand unimpeded access to Serb-run prisons and suspected mass grave sites in Serb-held territory.

He insisted earlier that Serbs had broken the peace plan by not providing a full list of prisoners.

"People who are forgotten today because this is supposed to be a complete and comprehensive prisoner release may in fact be forgotten forever," he said.

The military side of the agreement seemed, by contrast, to be proceeding smoothly. NATO officials are convinced the midnight Friday deadline for withdrawals will be met by all sides.

Dragan Bulajic, the Bosnian Serb official responsible for the exchange of POWs, said the Bosnian demand undermined the Dayton peace accord, and he pledged Serb cooperation with international agencies in tracking down the missing after the POW exchange.

"If we pass this test, there is a real chance for peace to come to this region," he told the Bosnian Serb news agency, SRNA.

Lieutenant General Sir Michael Walker, commander of NATO's Allied Rapid Reaction Force, said NATO officials would meet Saturday morning to assess the compliance.

Even after pull-back Friday, troops of the NATO-led force generally will not patrol buffer zones because of the risk from the millions of mines buried throughout Bosnia, Walker told reporters.

Only in areas where there are no mines will there be foot patrols. Otherwise, peace-enforcing troops will man checkpoints and surveillance stations, and conduct aerial observation.

Lightly armed local police will be allowed in buffer zones if they have Implementation Force approval.

Walker said the NATO-led force will not be used to force entrance to alleged prison and work camp sites -- at least until after the withdrawal phase is complete.

Serbs have unsuccessfully lobbied for an extension of the March 19 deadline for the unification of the divided Bosnian capital. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said he wanted stronger international commitment for the safety of Sarajevo's Serbs, who fear government retribution for nearly four years of Serb bombardment of the capital.

"With good will from all sides, we can find a substantive solution without altering the Dayton agreement," he said before meeting with other Bosnian Serb officials in Pale, just southeast of Sarajevo. "I cannot become a police force," U.S. Admiral Leighton Smith, commander of the Bosnian peace force, said Wednesday. "But our forces will be visible out in the areas, and they will provide at least a modicum of security."

Roads from Sarajevo to Pale, which will remain under Serb control, were jammed again Thursday with Bosnian Serbs leaving suburbs of the Bosnian capital.

Sacirbey met Thursday with Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck to discuss the missing.