The best hope yet for an end to more than three years of war in Bosnia came yesterday with the announcement by President Bill Clinton of a nationwide 60-day ceasefire and plans for a peace conference agreed by the presidents of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia.
Mr Clinton warned that the accord was fragile, that mistrust still lingered and that the road to a lasting peace remained long. "The parties in Bosnia have agreed to a ceasefire to terminate all hostile military activities throughout the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina to become effective on 10 October if certain conditions are met," Mr Clinton said. "At the same time the governments of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia have agreed to proximity peace talks in the United States beginning about 25 October aimed at bringing them closer to a peace agreement." In the light of previous failures, Mr Clinton warned it was vital to remain "clear-eyed". "It matters what the parties do - not what they say," he said.
Although the most difficult issues - the division of land and political power, the details of a post-war constitution - must still be tackled, yesterday's agreement may mark the beginning of the end. "This is not peace, but this is undeniably a big step forward," Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy who clinched a deal after weeks of endless shuttle diplomacy, told reporters in Zagreb. "We're very pleased with where we are but daunted by the road ahead."
The truce is to come into effect at midnight on Tuesday, provided that gas and electricity supplies to Sarajevo have been restored by the rebel Serbs, who shut off all utilities to the city late last spring. If all goes well, the parties should gather in Washington on 25 October for a peace conference, where they will meet in the same building but not around the same table. If sufficient progress is made, there will be a further peace conference in Paris, on a date yet to be specified.
Under the eight-point plan, the parties must end all offensive actions, including sniping and the laying of mines; open a route to the besieged eastern enclave of Gorazde for civilians and UN traffic; treat prisoners and civilians humanely; and arrange PoW exchanges.
Mr Holbrooke reeled off a list of the many obstacles still to be addressed - assuming the ceasefire takes hold - including the map, constitutional arrangments, the status of Sarajevo, electoral procedures, "you name it". Even creating the conditions for the ceasefire will require tremendous efforts by UN peacekeepers and aid workers, who must venture into front- line areas to inspect and repair gas and power lines. The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said yesterday the Serbs would not accept any peace map based on gains made by the government army helped by Croat forces in last month's offensive. As he spoke Bosnian Serb forces were reported by the Bosnian Serb news agency to be entering the government-held town of Kljuc in north-west Bosnia, with street fighting said to be under way. However, Mr Karadzic said the Bosnian Serbs were ready to open immediately routes from Gorazde to Sarajevo and Gorazde to Belgrade, which the Serbs must open as a condition for the ceasefire coming into force.
Nato defence ministers meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia, were urgently shaping plans yesterday for the peace-keeping force the alliance will despatch to the Balkans to police the final settlement. Hailing a "major step forward," the US Under-Secretary of Defense, Walter Slocombe, warned that it was critical that the ceasefire holds if a final deal is to be reached. The Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, said Nato forces "could be deploying within weeks" if all goes well.
Mr Holbrooke said alliance jets, which struck at three Bosnian Serb radar stations on Wednesday after the rebels locked on to Nato planes, would still patrol the skies to enforce earlier agreements, such as the "safe area" status of Sarajevo and Gorazde. Mr Holbrooke, who flew yesterday from Belgrade to Sarajevo to Zagreb, said the ceasefire talks had gone on late into Wednesday night over an open telephone line between the Serbian and Bosnian capitals.