SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Up to 16 people have disappeared while traveling through Serb-held areas of Sarajevo, prompting Bosnian officials to criticize NATO for not protecting civilians during the first 12 days of its mission.

Freedom of movement is a key test of the peace agreement signed Dec. 14 in Paris and enforced by NATO. The missing people were traveling in areas that were off limits to them for 3 years of war but recently opened by NATO troops.

Initial optimism that residents soon would be free to travel has yielded to a feeling that a legacy of bloodshed, mistrust and hatred still has Bosnia in a stranglehold.

Sixteen non-Serbs have been detained since Dec. 22 -- and are still being held -- in Ilidza, a Serb-held suburb in western Sarajevo, said Hasan Muratovic, minister for relations with the NATO-led Implementation Force, or IFOR.

He complained Tuesday that NATO troops had ``not taken a single action to protect them.''

In a statement late Tuesday, NATO officials acknowledged getting letters from Muratovic, dated Dec. 29 and Jan. 2, complaining about the disappearances, but said the minister failed to provide further details.

Bosnian officials claim that by failing to act, NATO's 60,000-strong force risks the same kind of political paralysis that undermined U.N. peacekeepers.

``We have a pattern here that has been established, and I think IFOR must respond to that,'' said Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey. The disappearances, he said, are ``a serious violation of the Dayton agreement.''

When reports surfaced a week ago that non-Serbs were being harassed, ground troops commander Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Walker of Britain played down the NATO role in policing traffic.

``I'm not in the business of escorting civilians,'' he said.

The Bosnian Serb official responsible for contacts with NATO, Dragan Dragic, acknowledged Tuesday that a group of non-Serbs had been detained ``for questioning after straying from the prescribed route'' through Serb-held Sarajevo. He said Muslims had no business in the area until it passes to government jurisdiction in March.

Muratovic said Serbs had offered to swap eight of the detainees as prisoners of war.

About 2,000 U.N. civilian police are due in Sarajevo by the end of January, but police authority is weak now, in the crucial early stages of NATO's deployment.

Adm. Leighton Smith, NATO commander in Bosnia, portrayed the detentions as banditry.

``While we will try very hard to position ourselves to prevent such acts of violence, I believe it is unreasonable for anybody to expect the IFOR to make this a crime-free country,'' Smith told Bosnian television Tuesday. ``Can we be expected to prevent every lawless act?''

But the Serbs' actions are much more likely political. Serbs in Sarajevo's suburbs are angry at having to cede control of their areas to the Muslim-led government under the peace deal. They have threatened to leave en masse if no concessions are made.

Despite upbeat NATO statements that the two sides have withdrawn from 40 key front lines in Sarajevo, Serb permission is still needed to cross one of Sarajevo's bridges, the Bridge of Brotherhood and Unity.

On Dec. 20, when NATO took over from the United Nations, French bulldozers smashed a series of infamous Serb checkpoints west of Sarajevo. Within days, other checkpoints fell, and Muslims, Croats and Serbs took to the roads.

Suddenly, foreign journalists could cross into Bosnian Serb territory without seemingly endless bureaucratic delays. Unthinkable even two weeks ago, a New Year's Eve trip from the Serb stronghold of Banja Luka to Sarajevo -- across seven former front lines -- took only five hours.

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