Muslim-Croat deal turns the heat on Serbs

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The Independent Online
BOSNIA stood at a historic crossroads yesterday. While all sides gave a cautious welcome to the surprise Muslim-Croat agreement to unite after a bloody, year-long war-within-a-war, there were lingering doubts over whether the deal represented a breakthrough for peace or the beginning of a new alliance determined to press on fighting the Serbs.

The preliminary agreement, US-brokered and signed on Tuesday in Washington, calls for a confederation of Bosnian Croats and Muslims in the third of the country they are contesting, with links to neighbouring Croatia. It is aimed, in part, to reconcile two erstwhile allies while putting pressure on the Bosnian Serbs, who hold the rest of the country.

Yesterday Croats and Muslims said it was up to the Serbs to pull back from some areas, or join them in a Western-funded confederated state with a rotating presidency.

'The main thing to determine now is where the Serbs fit in. The agreement between us, the Bosnian Croats and Croatia proper is quite firm,' said Muhamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's ambassador to the United Nations.

Signs of the new Croat-Muslim relationship were evident in central Bosnia yesterday where a strange calm prevailed. Guns were silent as a truce in the area and in the divided city of Mostar appeared to be holding.

The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic - in Moscow on an official visit - criticised the US for making a deal without Serbian input. However, his Russian backers were cautiously optimistic. The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said the agreement could make Serbs 'negotiate seriously' to end the two-year war.

According to US plans, for 'things to go right' the Serbs have to be brought on board. To do that the Americans are trying to tempt them with 'credit card diplomacy': promises of money for trade and reconstruction and getting international sanctions lifted.

The Americans are also counting on the reconciliation of the two former allies who, until last year, were joined in fighting the Serbs, to alter the balance of power on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. 'It's a stick and a carrot,' Mr Sacirbey said. 'It's a stick that can hit you politically, economically and militarily or it is a carrot offering the opportunity to rebuild the country with Western support for reconstruction and the enforcement of a peace agreement.'

However, a US official close to the Washington talks said yesterday that the Bosnian Serbs' main interest was not in economic development but in uniting with Serbia. In that case, the Americans hope that the Muslims and Croats will see the benefit of carrying on with their federation on their own. Such a prospect is unlikely. 'We are not looking to give the Serbs a way out, we are trying to show the Serbs a way in,' Mr Sacirbey said.

Some Bosnian Croats said the deal could collapse if Serbs chose to go their own way with the 70 per cent of Bosnia they hold. But one Bosnian Muslim official said: 'Until we signed this deal yesterday the outlook was grim that we could take back even 3 per cent more territory from the Serbs, but now with this deal we believe we can take back 100 per cent.' Meanwhile, Bosnian Serbs pounded Muslim enclaves yesterday, blocking two relief convoys and violating the Sarajevo ceasefire.