The Balkan peace talks went into a nail-biting extra time yesterday, as negotiators struggled to resolve crucial territorial issues still blocking an overall settlement to the 43-month Bosnian civil war, the bloodiest and most destructive European conflict in half a century.
As the diplomatic world held its breath, US officials put off to an unspecified time an earlier deadline of a 10am EST (3pm GMT) "event" that would have been either a ceremony to initial a comprehensive peace treaty, or an announcement that the talks that began 20 days ago at a Midwestern air force base had failed.
As the hours slipped by, the omens fluctuated wildly. A session which was to wrap things up on Sunday evening continued until 5.30am yesterday, amid alternating predictions of imminent agreement and irretrievable deadlock.
After a five hour break, the discussions resumed, but with no word by early afternoon of when the "event" was to take place.
At the secluded complex at the Wright-Patterson US Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where the multi-cornered negotiations were taking place, Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, was shuttling between the delegations headed by Presidents Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia, seeking to bridge outstanding differences. Waiting in the wings was President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia who arrived yesterday from Zagreb, predicting that a deal would be struck.
In Washington, President Bill Clinton, who has promised 20,000 US troops to help Nato police a settlement, was said to be ready to participate in person, "if that would help them get an agreement", according to the White House spokesman, Mike McCurry. In New York, the UN Security Council was poised to lift economic sanctions imposed in 1992 against the Serbian rump of former Yugoslavia, in the event of an accord.
According to officials, two territorial disputes had caused the 11th hour hold-up: the corridor to link Sarajevo with Gorazde, the last remaining Muslim enclave in Eastern Bosnia, and another in the north of the country, to link Serb territory in western and eastern Bosnia, and which the Serbs insist must be widened.
At midmorning, Nick Burns, the State Department spokes- man who repeatedly stressed Washington's determination that the talks must end yesterday come what may, insisted the "event" would take place in the afternoon. But Balkan officials indicated that proceedings might continue for the rest of the day, amid some predictions that the bargaining would yield only a partial agreement, covering constitutional issues, leaving the thorniest territorial problems to a later date.
This would be a disappointment for the Americans, whose relentless efforts to broker a settlement have been mainly responsible for this best, and perhaps last, chance of a negotiated end to the war, though less of a blow than the outright collapse of the talks at Dayton, or a cosmetic and bogus overall agreement that could quickly fall apart.
A peace settlement would divide Bosnia into two separate "entities," controlled by the Croat-Muslim federation and the Bosnian Serb on a roughly 51-49 basis, and linked by a weak central government.
The Muslim-led government is adamant that the outcome must not be partition by another name, or a solution that permits the Bosnian Serb portion to secede and unite with Serbia proper.
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