Bosnia must return refugees, rethink future - envoy

ZAGREB, Feb 25, 2000 -- (Reuters) Bosnia's Moslems, Croats and Serbs must return all refugees and fully implement the Dayton peace accord before mapping out their future relations, the top Western envoy in Bosnia said on Thursday.

"First it is an absolute necessity to have the Dayton Accords fully implemented and then we can talk about whatever decision is taken by the three peoples in the country," said Wolfgang Petritsch, the West's High Representative in Bosnia.

"But there is ample space, enough room for improvement on what has been done so far. We still have over one million refugees inside and outside Bosnia," Petritsch said after talks with Croatia's new president, reformist Stipe Mesic.

He commented on recent informal proposals by Moslem and Croat officials to divide Bosnia into cantons rather than preserve the current two entities - a Moslem-Croat federation and a Serb republic.

Mesic, who has publicly criticized his nationalist predecessor Franjo Tudjman for his support to Bosnian Croat separatists, agreed.

"I have nothing against (cantonization) but we must first implement the accords and then build on it. We must return the people, otherwise someone may think that ethnic cleansing pays off," Mesic told reporters.

Petritsch said the new Croatia, ruled by a pro-European coalition of center-left parties since the January 3 general election, would play an important role in Bosnia.

"As a guarantor of Dayton, Croatia plays a decisive role in the future implementation process and through the changes in (its) government and the presidency I see new opportunities for an improvement of the overall situation in Bosnia," he said.

The Dayton peace accord was signed by Tudjman, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian officials in late 1995. It ended over three years of war but has seen little progress on the ground, notably in the return of refugees.

Tudjman died in December and his hardline HDZ lost the January election. A month later Mesic, whose party belongs to the victorious coalition, won the presidential poll.

Mesic said Croatia would now closely cooperate with Bosnia.

"Our strategic aim is to join the European Union and NATO and that is certainly the aim of Bosnia as well. To achieve these goals we must solve the problems we have inherited and with Bosnia, we must do it bilaterally," he said.

But he said that, unlike in Croatia, those who opposed the Bosnian settlement were still in power in neighboring Yugoslavia's dominant republic of Serbia.

"Only after Serbia democratizes will the entire region be able to stabilize," he said.

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