The Bosnian government declared the siege of anguished Sarajevo over Thursday after assuming control of this former Serb suburb and a vital stretch of adjoining road.
The declaration came on a historic anniversary: Exactly four years earlier, on Feb. 29, 1992, Bosnian Muslims and Croats began voting in a two-day referendum for independence from Serb-led Yugoslavia, the starting point of their descent into war.After nearly four years of privation and death in Bosnia's capital, the end to the siege came without fanfare. At 10:03 a.m., Avdo Hebib, the interior minister of the Muslim-led government, glanced at his watch and said: "The siege of Sarajevo is now officially over."
With a NATO-led peace force in place, the government has been poking holes in the siege for weeks, traveling in and out of Serb territory. But Serbs had retained a cordon around the city.
The transfer of power Thursday in Ilijas, however, gave the government and its Croat allies total control of a road in and out of Sarajevo for the first time since the war began.
The main road north from Sarajevo skirts Ilijas before reaching government-held Visoko five miles farther north, and the Serbs had fiercely defended the stretch of highway around Ilijas throughout the war.
When Muslims and Croats took control of Ilijas Thursday, they also took over the piece of road that had been in Serb hands, leading Hebib to declare the siege of Sarajevo over after he reached Visoko on the highway.
Ilijas is the second Serb suburb handed over to the Muslims and Croats under the peace accord's plan to reunify Sarajevo. Vogosca was transferred Friday, and by March 19, the three other Serb suburbs are to change hands, completely freeing access to the capital.
Bosnian authorities arrived in Ilijas Thursday and found a now-familiar scene - most Serbs had fled rather than live under authority of their wartime enemies. International officials said only 2,000 of its 17,000 residents remained in Ilijas.
About two dozen residents - Muslims, Croats and Serbs - gathered in front of the police station to watch the arrival. Bosnian officials came in bulletproof Mercedes. Police vehicles and fire trucks pulled in. Engineers came from the electric utility to repair damaged lines.
One bystander, 65-year-old Croat Viktor Rupcic, said Serb youths had forced him out of his home at 1 a.m. and burned it. In the distance, smoke rose from a few fires.
Mirko Marceta bemoaned the departure of most of his fellow Serbs. "They were mistaken to run," he said.