After a gruelling, high-wire negotiating marathon, Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia yesterday agreed to a US-brokered peace plan to end almost four years of bloodshed, misery and destruction in the Balkans, the most savage conflict in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
The deal was due to be initialled later by Presidents Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia in a ceremony at the Wright-Patterson US Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, where the three rival delegations and officials from the five-nation Contact Group have been closeted for 21 days. A formal treaty signing is due in Paris, perhaps during President Bill Clinton's forthcoming trip to Europe, to be followed by the dispatch of a Nato peace-keeping force of 60,000 men, including 20,000 US troops.
Announcing the crowning, if perhaps most fragile, foreign policy achievement of his term so far, Mr Clinton applauded the three leaders for their "historic and heroic choice" in heeding the will of "the overwhelming majority of their peoples" that the war must end. "Today, thank God, the voices of those people have been heard."
The agreement provides for a united Sarajevo as capital of a single Bosnian state, within its present borders but composed of two entities, the Bosnian- Croat federation and the Bosnian Serb Republic. They will be linked by a central government with common institutions, based around a national presidency and parliament to be chosen in direct, internationally supervised elections.
But the comprehensive settlement was in doubt until the very last. "When I got up this morning I was not sure there'd be peace," Mr Clinton said after a confused late night and early morning of climactic negotiation.
For 30 minutes around 4am on Monday, the US team thought they had a deal, only for the three parties to shy away. Then the talks veered to the brink of total collapse, with the protagonists separated until almost the very last by the crucial territorial issue of the Posavina corridor in northern Bosnia, providing a vital link between Bosnian Serb lands in the east and west of the country.
Finally, after more deadlines had come and gone, a last gambit by the US mediating team, led by the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and the Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Holbrooke, produced the crucial breakthrough among the exhausted participants.
According to officials, the Americans simply laid on the table the final draft of the treaty, containing a compromise solution to the territorial disputes. Croatia and Serbia accepted, Bosnia held out. But isolated and under intense pressure from all sides not to let this best, and perhaps last chance, of a peace slip away, President Izetbegovic went along.
Thus, if all goes well, will end a war which has taken 250,000 lives, wrought untold destruction and turned 2 million people into refugees. Among the treaty's provisions are the promises of a massive international reconstruction effort, and the right of the displaced to return to their homes. Those charged with war crimes would be barred from public life.
But the potential pitfalls ahead are numerous, amid predictions that the fighting could still resume once winter is over, and that the deal is a thinly veiled, de facto partition of Bosnia. The two states-within- a-state will be left with their own armies, and it was unclear too what arrangements had been made for the re-arming of the Bosnian Muslim military.
At one stage President Izetbegovic was demanding a solid provision in the treaty that the Muslim army be given the strength to match its Bosnian Serb rival. This was refused by the US, but Washington remains prepared to provide weapons and training. But several European countries object, arguing it is impossible for the US to be simultaneously a neutral guarantor of the peace and the supplier of arms to one of the former belligerents.
More immediately, Mr Clinton must get the Congressional approval for the despatch of US troops to help protect what could be a very precarious peace.
The Nato mission, he said, would be "clear, limited and achievable, while US troops would be under exclusive US command". "Without us, the peace would be lost and the war would resume," President Clinton warned. The conflict could again "spread like poison" through the entire region.
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