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Ethnic Divisions Delay Bosnia Transition Decision

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -- The body overseeing Bosnia's peace process has agreed to delay into 2009 a decision on when to end international supervision, as ethnic divisions continue to prevent the country meeting all necessary conditions.

In a statement after two days of talks in Brussels, the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) expressed deep concern about "divisive rhetoric" from political rivals "challenging the sovereignty and constitutional order of Bosnia-Herzegovina".

"The PIC...made it clear that the transition cannot come about until the measures set...have been met," Miroslav Lajcak, who holds the dual role of high representative and EU special representative for Bosnia, told a news briefing.

"At this point, authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina have not completed the work plan adopted by the PIC in February and this means the Office of the High Representative [OHR] will continue to carry out its mandate...into 2009," he said.

The OHR, created in 1995 to oversee implementation of the Dayton peace agreement, had been due to close in June 2007, but its mandate has already been extended amid continuing tensions between Bosnia's two parts.

Lajcak said the PIC, which groups 55 states and organizations, had judged there had been progress on all but two issues -- namely apportionment of state property and the legal status of the Brcko district.

He said a decision on transition was "realistically achievable" by the time of the next PIC meeting in March.

In the meantime, the European Union peacekeeping operation would have to remain in place, he said. "This is not the time to introduce changes to the presence."

Lajcak said it was time for Bosnia's leaders to focus fully on taking the country toward eventual EU membership.

"The slow pace of reforms and the prevailing divisive and destructive rhetoric...will nether build a state not result in progress on European integration," he said.

EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana and Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn circulated a proposal this month calling for a start to preparations for the end of the 13-year-old international supervision and an increased EU role.

Under this transition the high representative's work would be transferred to an EU representative with fewer powers. Solana and Rehn said the EU should ensure it is ready for the transition by mid-2009.

Earlier this month, the EU said it would avoid any early withdrawal of its 2,500-strong military mission in Bosnia.

The former Yugoslav republic was divided into the Serbian Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation after the 1992-95 Bosnian war that killed about 100,000 people. It is run by a weak central government and some Serbs favor secession.