PARIS -- The Bosnian Serbs have agreed to withdraw their heavy guns out of firing range of Sarajevo, ending at least temporarily NATO's two-week bombing campaign against the Serbs, allied officials announced yesterday.
The agreement, signed by the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic, gives the Serbs six days to withdraw the approximately 300 guns that have consistently bombarded Sarajevo since April 6, 1992, the officials said.
In return, NATO will suspend its bombing for three days, with a promise to refrain for a further three days if convinced the Serbian guns are being moved.
If the Serbs withdraw their guns beyond the 12.5 miles demanded by NATO, the long siege of Sarajevo would be considerably eased and the shelling that has terrorized the city's 300,000 inhabitants stopped.
This would amount to a considerable achievement for U.S. diplomacy, which only moved into high gear in the Balkans six weeks ago, after four years of hesitancy and intermittent hand-wringing over the violent destruction of Yugoslavia.
The officials said that Richard C. Holbrooke, the chief U.S. mediator in the Balkans, was seeking assurances from Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic that he would restrain his forces from any offensive aimed at land vacated by the Serbs' guns and allow Bosnian heavy weapons in the capital to be monitored by U.N. peacekeepers.
The United States also has urged the Bosnian government to consider the possibility of a cease-fire brokered by the United Nations in the Sarajevo area, the officials said.
"The Serbs' acceptance is unconditional," one U.S. official said. "They have signed a document. But we agreed to request the Bosnian government's cooperation in these areas."
If, however, the Bosnian government views the accord as making significant concessions to the Serbs in return for their withdrawal of the guns, it might raise objections.
The United Nations has demanded the unconditional withdrawal Bosnian Serb guns, the reopening of Sarajevo airport and improved access to the city by road. On Aug. 30, after 41 months of hesitation over how to combat the Serbian siege of the Bosnian capital, NATO embarked on a bombing campaign aimed at securing these objectives.
President Clinton, clearly determined to be cautious given the history of diplomacy in the Balkans, said yesterday that there was now "some reason to hope" that progress had been made
toward securing Bosnian Serb compliance.
The pause in bombing, initially for 12 hours, was ordered yesterday after Mr. Holbrooke reached the agreement on the Serbian withdrawal of guns during 11 hours of talks with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade Wednesday. Dr. Karadzic and General Mladic also were at the meeting, the officials said.
The six days accorded to the Serbs for the withdrawal of their artillery began when the agreement was formally announced. If, after three days, the Serbs' progress toward completing the withdrawal is deemed inadequate, NATO might resume bombing.
Upon completion of the withdrawal, the threat of NATO airstrikes would constitute the guarantee that the Serbs would keep their artillery more than 12.5 miles from Sarajevo.
The presence of Mr. Milosevic, Dr. Karadzic and General Mladic in the same room in Belgrade was apparently designed to ensure that there were no divisions among the Serbs on acceptance of NATO's terms.
Over the past two weeks, General Mladic appeared determined to resist the NATO ultimatum. But in the end, pressure from Mr. Milosevic and the Russian government, as well as the Serbs' clear desire at this point for serious peace negotiations, appear to have led to a change.
Divisions among the Serbs have sapped their capacity to wage war in recent months, leading to large losses of territory in Croatia and Bosnia. In the past, real or contrived splits also have served to obfuscate issues and weaken Western resolve in confronting the war.
The outline accord on Sarajevo came as Croatian and Bosnian forces stormed across western and central Bosnia, taking several towns and sending at least 50,000 Serbian refugees into confused flight toward Banja Luka, U.N. officials said.
NATO first set an ultimatum for the withdrawal of the Serbs' guns from Sarajevo in February 1994. But amid widespread hesitation over bombing, the Serbs were ultimately allowed to place their guns in "weapons-collection points" monitored by the United Nations.
This had the effect of placing U.N. peacekeepers in the path of the only effective deterrent to the Serbs' use of the guns -- NATO air power. The uneasy arrangement finally collapsed this summer beneath its inherent contradictions.
Mr. Holbrooke's meeting in Belgrade was entirely devoted to the question of NATO's bombardment of the Bosnian Serbs. Broader issues related to advancing a peace settlement were set aside.
It thus appears clear that, amid increasingly vociferous Russian objections to the NATO bombardment, the air campaign had become a serious obstacle to advancing the broader peace process.
In Geneva last week, the Bosnian Serbs, who accounted for a third of Bosnia's pre-war population, recognized for the first time that the independent state of Bosnia exists. The Muslim-led government accepted for the first time the existence of a Bosnian Serb republic within the state called Republika Srpska.
This mutual recognition amounted to a considerable breakthrough, albeit one far short of guaranteeing that a peace settlement is about to be achieved after 3 1/2 years of war.
Under the terms of an eventual agreement, the Serbs would have to give up some of the land they hold. But these holdings already appear to be falling rapidly to a sustained Croatian and Bosnian assault in central and western Bosnia.
The Croats and Muslims, who fought a war in 1993, are now linked in a tenuous, U.S.-mediated alliance.
One U.S. official said that the Serbs now appeared to hold between 60 percent and 62 percent of Bosnia. Until recently, they held close to 70 percent. Under the terms of a possible peace accord now being negotiated, the Serbs would have to reduce their share of territory to 49 percent of Bosnia.