Muslim and Croats make peace: US brokers ceasefire to end brutal fighting in central and southern Bosnia

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BOSNIAN Muslim and Croat forces intend to sign a general ceasefire today and end one of former Yugoslavia's most vicious wars, in which the Serbs played little part. The initiative owes much to US pressure on the Muslims and Croats to stop a war which has devastated much of central and southern Bosnia, including the Ottoman city of Mostar.

United Nations officials said the two army commanders would meet in Zagreb with the aim of agreeing a truce and paving the way to a wider settlement in Bosnia. The officials revealed the breakthrough as the European Union's proposals for a partition of Bosnia into Muslim, Serbian and Croatian areas were in effect swept aside in favour of a new American plan that could maintain the republic's integrity.

The US-led effort is designed to build on the momentum created by the withdrawal of Bosnian Serb artillery from around Sarajevo last week. Although that involved the threat of Nato air strikes, the Americans are concentrating on diplomacy because Russia's intervention has all but ruled out another Nato ultimatum.

Russia's special envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said he doubted that the Sarajevo model could be applied to other flashpoints, such as Tuzla in northern Bosnia, where Muslims live under the shadow of Serbian artillery. However, the UN says it hopes to open Tuzla airport on 7 March so that aid can reach more than a million civilians in central Bosnia.

UN forces came under fire near Tuzla yesterday, and five Swedish soldiers were wounded when a shell hit their armoured vehicle. Their commander called for air cover and two British Harrier jump-jets responded. The UN came 'very, very close' to ordering a strike, a senior Unprofor official said. General Jean Cot, overall UN commander in former Yugoslavia, commented: 'It is only because there was no absolute means of determining the origin of the shell that it was not possible to use the air force.'

Bosnia's Croats and Muslims were united against the Serbs when war broke out in April 1992, but their alliance broke down a year later because Croatia's President, Franjo Tudjman, was colluding with the Serbs to carve up Bosnia. The Muslims and Croats have clashed over the past 10 months in areas such as Mostar, Vitez and Gornji Vakuf, with the Serbs in virtually uncontested control of 70 per cent of Bosnia.

Since the ceasefire in Sarajevo two weeks ago, the EU and UN negotiators, Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg, have taken a back seat as the Americans lean on the Muslims and Croats and the Russians use their influence with the Serbs.

US efforts are aimed at persuading the Croats and Muslims to form a close alliance, either in a Bosnian confederation that would include the Serbs, or as the basis of a rump Bosnian state larger than envisaged under the EU-UN plan. The US initiative requires Mr Tudjman and Bosnian Croat nationalists to abandon plans for Greater Croatia.

The Government will fuel a political row today by announcing a third phase of Army redundancies, writes Christopher Bellamy. The Ministry of Defence last night refused to comment on reports that 7,000 officers and soldiers - including some in Bosnia - would receive redundancy notices tomorrow. The announcement is in line with long-standing plans to bring numbers down to about 120,000 by next year, but comes a week after ministers refused to reinforce British UN troops in Bosnia except for 60 troops from the Royal Artillery.