AFTER failing to convince Bosnian Serbs frantically fleeing Sarajevo suburbs that their protection would be assured if they stayed, the American commander of NATO's peacekeeping forces relented and announced that his troops would assist them in leaving their homes.
US Adm. Leighton Smith rejected assertions that his 60,000-strong force would be abetting ethnic cleansing, and said he was only acting in humanitarian interest.
This softening by Admiral Smith on a principle that was not part of the Dayton peace accord has given the Serb policy of ethnic division an unexpected boost.
A similar dilemma has challenged commanders of previous UN forces. But many observers say the continuation of the Bosnian Serbs' wartime policy of ethnic separation is jeopardizing the hope enshrined in the peace accord that Bosnia would again become a multiethnic society.
The dramatic exodus of thousands of Serbs from the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca over the weekend, which UN and relief officials say was instigated by inflammatory statements from the Bosnian Serb leadership, indicates that lingering fear of former enemies is far from overcome.
And as police of the Muslim-Croat federation on Friday moved into Vogosca, they found the district largely abandoned, stripped of valuables and, in some cases, burned. UN officials estimate that only 2,500 Serbs - mostly the elderly and infirm - remained of the 17,000 Serbs who have lived here. Over the weekend they, too, loudly voiced their resolve to depart. United Nations officials have refused to help them flee in order to avoid accusations that they were aiding ethnic cleansing.
While touring Vogosca on Saturday, Smith was confronted by angry Serbs who demanded he help them escape. When he suggested they stay to live together with their former enemies, he was shouted down.
"I think we can provide them with escorts ... It will make things nice and clean," he said. "There will be Bosnian Serb military vehicles allowed ... and they will be for the purpose only of assisting the people in a humanitarian effort.... I believe that by doing this we will reduce the tensions; we will show some compassion."
The Serb departure and the behavior of the federation police in Vogosca - who are operating under the watchful eyes of small UN police force - are seen as setting the precedent for the peaceful transfer of the four other Serb-controlled suburbs. But so far signs are not encouraging, Western officials say.
"If there is ethnic separatism in Sarajevo, I fear it could have repercussions for the whole of Bosnia," said Carl Bildt, the civilian peace coordinator.
On the eve of the transfer, Italian Nato "peacekeeping" troops watched as shops, a kindergarten, and apartment blocks were torched. Columns of desperate Serb refugees braved driving snow and ice-covered roads to get away. Among their bundles of belongings were the last remnants of their own homes: window frames, sheets of tin, and electrical wire. Many tearfully considered their future now that the brutal four-year siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces was at an end.
"What can we expect but revenge?" asked a fleeing Serb.
The UN and international police force have tried to convince Sarajevo Serbs that they would be safe under the rule of the Muslim-led Bosnian government, but leaflets distributed by the new police force throughout last week were not enough to counter statements from the Bosnian Serb leadership in Pale that Serbs must flee.
The streams of Serb refugees was reminiscent of earlier moments in the 3 1/2 years of war, though usually the refugees were Muslims, trying to escape brutal Serb campaigns of ethnic cleansing.
The Dayton accord envisions Bosnia divided into Serb and Muslim/Croat halves, but rejects the goals of ethnic cleansing and insists on the rights of all Bosnians to return to their original homes and live together in harmony.
In Vogosca this time - a time of "peace" - even the police station was ransacked by departing Serb police, a sea of detritus surrounding the overturned desks and files. After replacing the Serb flag with the white and blue fleur-de-lis banner of Bosnia, however, the new police did little to reassure the handful of remaining Serbs.
"The police are doing all the wrong things: stopping cars, checking identity cards, and bossing people around. They are sending all the wrong signals," said Kris Janowski, spokesman for the UNHCR. Vogosca, he said, was a test case for reconciliation with implications far beyond Sarajevo. "Unless the police are reined in, the genuineness of the Bosnian government's commitment to multiethnicity is in question."