Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia's Muslim-led government are expected to announce a historic peace settlement for former Yugoslavia this weekend, ending Europe's bloodiest conflict in 50 years.
Senior US officials attending peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, said the three Balkan delegations had narrowed their differences on most issues, and were within reach of a final agreement. "The hope is to be able to announce initials on an agreement Monday or Sunday night," said a senior US official travelling to Dayton with the US Defense Secretary, William Perry.
A settlement, if concluded, would end a war in which as many as 200,000 people have been slaughtered and up to 3 million displaced from their homes. The conflict, which erupted in June 1991, has produced such savagery against civilians that the United Nations felt obliged to establish a war crimes tribunal that has so far indicted 52 people, including several Serb and Croat leaders.
The Ohio talks were placed under a news blackout from the start on 1 November as a way of concentrating the minds of delegates on securing an agreement. But signs mounted rapidly yesterday that a deal was in the offing, as Mr Perry flew to Dayton, swiftly followed by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, who cut short a visit to Japan.
Anthony Lake, President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, was reporting to the President last night after secretly visiting Dayton on Thursday. A US official said the trips of Mr Lake, Mr Perry and Mr Christopher could be taken as evidence that a settlement was close.
The breakthrough was confirmed by Croatia's President Franjo Tudjman, who said an accord that would normalise relations between Serbia and Croatia was ready for signing. But in a sign that the talks had not resolved every outstanding dispute, he said the delegations had agreed to postpone discussion of a possible exchange of territory between Croats and Serbs near Dubrovnik.
Despite appeals from the White House not to disrupt the process, the US House of Representatives was due to go ahead last night with a vote on a bill to stop Mr Clinton sending peace-keeping troops to the former Yugoslavia without its approval. Mr Clinton is committed to vetoing the measure, but it would embarrass the administration as the former Yugoslavia reaches a peace deal.
The precise terms of the settlement remain secret, but their general outline is clear. Bosnia will remain a united state in its pre-war borders, but will be divided into a Muslim-Croat federation with 51 per cent of the land and a Bosnian Serb entity with 49 per cent. The central Bosnian government in Sarajevo will have relatively limited powers, but will be Bosnia's official face to the outside world. The aim is to prevent areas under Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat control from seeking to unite with Serbia and Croatia, a step that would reduce Bosnia to a vulnerable Muslim-inhabited core.
The Serbs will be permitted a corridor linking their lands in northern and eastern Bosnia, and the Muslim-led government will keep the eastern enclave of Gorazde. One unresolved problem remains the Bosnian Serb demand for access to the Adriatic Sea.
Sarajevo, under siege from April 1992 by Serb forces who wanted to partition the city into Serb and Muslim sectors, will be reunited with full freedom of movement for all citizens. Refugees from all parts of the capital will be able to return to their homes, and it is expected that some districts will preserve a Serb majority.
One long-standing obstacle to a settlement was the insistence of Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, that UN sanctions against his country should be fully lifted. A US official, without giving details, said this difficulty had been overcome.
Earlier, the State Department's spokesman, Nicholas Burns, had said Serbia would not be allowed to renew its membership of key international institutions, such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, unless it co-operated with the UN war crimes tribunal. The tribunal wants a number of Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb leaders handed over for trial, including Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, accused of massacring up to 6,000 Muslims in Srebrenica last July, but it is unlikely they could be turned in without Mr Milosevic's help.
The settlement, if agreed in its entirety, will represent a significant achievement, but could prove vulnerable to pressures in coming years. In particular, the vast population transfers induced by the war mean that the Muslim-Croat zone in Bosnia is likely to be drawn into Croatia's orbit and the Serb zone into Serbia's orbit. The settlement seeks to prevent Bosnia's partition, but the mixed-nationality communities that were Bosnia's strength may now have gone forever.
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