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Under U.S. pressure, leader of Bosnian Serbs steps aside

Under an agreement hammered out by U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic formally stepped down as the Bosnian Serb political leader Friday and announced he is withdrawing "permanently from all political activities."

The Bosnian Serb statement, which came after hours of negotiations between Holbrooke and Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, enables the Clinton administration to declare the way open for elections in Bosnia to be held Sept. 14. But it sidesteps demands by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague for Karadzic's arrest and extradition, and it makes no mention of the Bosnian Serb military leader, Gen. Ratko Mladic, who also has been indicted on war crimes charges.

Holbrooke, the principal architect of the peace accord forged late last year in Dayton, Ohio, that put an end to 3{ years of war in Bosnia, said Karadzic's agreement to quit public life presented the United States and its allies with a chance to "revitalize the peace process."

At the same time, he acknowledged that the statement fell significantly short of American goals and that questions remain over whether Karadzic (pronounced KA-ra-jich) will continue to exercise power from behind the scenes.

"This is only a piece of paper. Implementation is key," said Holbrooke, who was informed of Karadzic's decision in a fax from the Bosnian Serb headquarters in Pale.

For all its imperfections, the document marks another negotiating coup for Holbrooke, who resigned as assistant secretary of state for European affairs in February and whom the Clinton administration brought back from retirement to resolve the "Karadzic problem." During three days of shuttle diplomacy around the Balkans, he has succeeded in achieving a goal that has eluded diplomats such as Carl Bildt, the international community's senior representative in Sarajevo, and his own former State Department colleagues.

Under pressure from Bildt, Karadzic agreed last month to relinquish some of his presidential powers to Biljana Plavsic, an equally hard-line but lesser-known figure. But he insisted on retaining his post as leader of the Serb Democratic Party, which rules the Serb-held half of Bosnia, known as Republika Srpska or the Serb Republic. The United States said this was unacceptable.

Although the new agreement provides for Karadzic's removal from power, it is unlikely to lead to major policy changes in the Serb Republic. U.S. officials think the key figure there will now be Momcilo Krajisnik, speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament and a signatory to the agreement, who is no less hard-line or nationalistic than Karadzic. The difference between the two is that Krajisnik has not been indicted for war crimes and is therefore considered an acceptable negotiating partner by the West.

The Bosnian Serb statement reiterated that Karadzic's duties as the Serb Republic's president will be assumed by Plavsic, an active proponents of "ethnic cleansing" _ mass slayings or forced population transfers _ during the early stages of the Bosnian war. Plavsic will be acting president until after the Sept. 14 election.

The document states that Karadzic "will withdraw immediately and permanently from all political activities." It adds that "he will not appear in public, or on radio or television or means of communication, or participate in any way in the elections."

In an interview before returning to Washington, Holbrooke insisted he had not offered Milosevic or the Bosnian Serbs any "carrots" as incentive to reach the agreement. He attributed their change of heart to a decision by the United States to bar Karadzic's party from participating in the Bosnian elections if it remained under Karadzic's leadership, and a threat to reimpose United Nations sanctions against Yugoslavia, which includes Serbia and Montenegro.

Holbrooke said it was impossible to persuade Milosevic to commit himself to Karadzic's arrest and extradition to The Hague.

"There are certain things he will not do," Holbrooke said. "If we won't (arrest Karadzic) when we have 60,000 troops in the country, why would (Milosevic) do it and launch a Serb civil war?"

During the early stages of the Bosnian war, the Serbian president was widely regarded as Karadzic's principal political patron. But the two men had fallen out by 1993, when Milosevic began to advocate a negotiated end to the war.

Holbrooke said the United States would be on guard to prevent Karadzic from pulling the political strings from behind the scenes. He drew an analogy with the Cambodian guerrilla leader, Pol Pot, who remained the dominant figure in the Khmer Rouge movement without an official position.

"If this is the Pol Pot option, it is not going to work," said Holbrooke, adding that the West retained the right to reimpose trade sanctions on Yugoslavia that were suspended last November.

A grim task

A Bosnian woman leaves a morgue in Visoko on Friday after identifying a missing relative. Hundreds of Muslim civilians have been exhumed in recent weeks by war crimes investigators.