SARAJEVO Bosnian leader Bakir Izetbegovic hit out at Serbia's nationalist president on Tuesday, comparing him to genocide suspect Radovan Karadzic after he told a television interviewer that Bosnia was "disappearing before our eyes."
Izetbegovic, the Muslim chairman of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, said he would pull out of a planned first meeting next month with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and warned of "irreparable damage" to regional relations.
Serbia's relations with its neighbors Bosnia and Croatia have soured since the election in May of Nikolic, a once fierce supporter of the 'Greater Serbia' ideology that fuelled the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
Nikolic told Macedonian Sitel television at the weekend:
"For 17 years the international community has not been able to make Bosnia and Herzegovina a state, and this does not function, and it is slowly disappearing before our eyes."
In a letter to Nikolic, Izetbegovic said such remarks reminded him "ominously" of those of Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, who is now standing trial at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Karadzic said before the war that plans to declare Bosnia an independent state would "lead the country into hell and perhaps make the Muslim people disappear".
Izetbegovic's father, Alija, led Bosnia to independence in 1992. Some 100,000 people died in the war that followed.
"I can assure you that Bosnia and Herzegovina, the sovereign, independent and internationally recognized state, will not disappear," Izetbegovic wrote. "Not quickly, nor slowly."
Nikolic has already angered Bosnia by denying that the July 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica was genocide, rejecting a ruling as such by the U.N. tribunal.
A peace deal in 1995 split Bosnia into two autonomous regions joined by a weak central government, but ethnic rivalries continue to stifle development and Bosnian Serb leaders do not hide their contempt for the joint state.
Good regional relations is a central condition of Serbia's bid to join the European Union. It became a candidate in March this year but has yet to open accession talks. Bosnia is not yet a candidate.
Izetbegovic accused Nikolic of "inflicting irreparable damage to relations between Bosnia and Serbia and the process of normalization that was launched in the region."
Such remarks, he said, could be a source of "new misunderstandings and tensions."
(Editing by Matt Robinson)