Yugoslavia's new president, Vojislav Kostunica, got his regional foreign policy off to a shaky start yesterday by visiting the Serb part of Bosnia for the re-burial of a nationalist poet who was much admired by the indicted war criminal and former Bosnian leader, Radovan Karadzic.

The controversial visit was slightly softened after Mr Kostunica, listening to pleas from Bosnian Muslim leaders and the UN's international administrators, agreed to stop briefly in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo before returning to Belgrade.

No Yugoslav president has visited Bosnia since it became independent in 1992. Few expected Mr Kostunica to apologise for the three-year siege of Sarajevo and the massacres of Muslims and Croats by Serb forces supported by Slobodan Milosevic, but there were hopes that the new president would break from the past by going first to Sarajevo to announce Yugoslavia's official recognition of the new state.

Instead, he went to Trebinje in the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, at the invitation of its deputy president, Mirko Sarovic. Mr Sarovic is a member of the party founded by Radovan Karadzic, the one-time poet and psychiatrist who is the most wanted Bosnian suspect indicted by the UN war tribunal in The Hague.

The occasion was the re-burial of Jovan Ducic, a supporter of the wartime monarchist and anti-communist Chetniks, who died in exile in the US in 1943. As a poet and diplomat Mr Ducic was on the extreme wing of Serbian nationalism.

Mr Kostunica's decision to honour him sent extraordinary signals, especially as Karadzic's wife Ljiljana attended parts of the two-day ceremony, including the reburial yesterday. Her husband won the Ducic prize for poetry a decade ago.

In Sarajevo, the Bosnian foreign ministry expressed outrage that Mr Kostunica's first visit would be to the Serb-ruled part of Bosnia rather than the capital, even though Mr Kostunica attended the reburial privately.

Other Bosnians tried hard to turn the incident into something positive. About 5,000 people were present at the ceremony, including representatives of the Islamic and Jewish communities in Bosnia and the Muslim mayor of nearby Mostar, Safet Orucevic.

After the ceremony, Mr Kostunica had lunch with all Bosnian Serb leaders except the pro-western prime minister, Milorad Dodik, who left after the event was over.

Bosnia's chief international administrator, Wolfgang Petritsch, visited Mr Kostunica in Belgrade on Friday in an attempt to persuade him to change the visit. On Saturday, Mr Petritsch's office announced that following the reburial, the Yugoslav president would fly aboard a UN helicopter for an "official visit" to Sarajevo.

Mirza Hajric, foreign policy adviser to the Muslim member of Bosnia's three-member presidency, called Mr Kostunica's visit a "positive step". "There's a Bosnian phrase: 'Once bitten by a snake you are afraid of a lizard'," he said. "On the other hand we need to give a chance to the new Belgrade leadership."

Mr Hajric said the Sarajevo talks would be an important confidence-building move and that Bosnia would propose the unconditional establishment of diplomatic relations.

Jacques Klein, head of the UN mission in Bosnia, said: "The fact that he is coming shows that he has statesmanship character. The Milosevic era is over."

President Kostunica's nationalism has already alienated Kosovo and Montenegro. His pledge in his inaugural speech to "strengthen the links between Serbia and Kosovo" has irritated Kosovo Albanians and his determination to appoint a member of the main pro-Milosevic party in Montenegro to the prime ministership of the Yugoslav Federation upset Montenegro's ruling party.

In Zagreb the new democratic government of Stipe Mesic is watching anxiously to see what Mr Kostunica's first moves towards Croatia will be.

Taken from www.guardian.co.uk

London, October 23