A torrent of words sweeps Bosnia away: The West is agonising again over giving the Muslims the firepower to defend themselves - while a carve-up threatens to shatter their state

THEY moulder in desk drawers and wilt in dusty files throughout the vast United Nations building in Geneva: the endless maps of Bosnia-Herzegovina, hundreds of formal speeches, dozens of draft documents bearing the signatures of the main players - Milosevic, Tudjman, Karadzic, Boban, Izetbegovic, Vance and Owen.

On some office walls you can still see a crazy-paving mosaic of districts and 10 provinces, which comprised the geographical blueprint for an idea that will survive in the annals of European diplomacy as a byword for failure: the Vance-Owen plan.

The authors of that ill-fated project say they are not to blame for its demise. It foundered, they insist, on the failure of Western nations to endorse the plan, their unwillingness to commit the necessary troops, the subsequent persuasion of the Serbs that force would be rewarded and the illusion of outside succour repeatedly offered to the Muslims by politicians in the United States.

Among the volumes of declarations pronounced in these cavernous halls - the seat, it will be remembered, of the League of Nations - a special place is likely to be reserved in history for the speech by President Bush's transient Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, on 16 December last year.

'The solidarity of the civilised and democratic nations of the West lies with the innocent and brutalised Muslim people of Bosnia,' Mr Eagleburger intoned. 'Thus we must make it unmistakably clear that we will settle for nothing less than the restoration of the independent state of Bosnia-Herzegovina with its territory undivided and intact; the return of all refugees to their homes and villages; and, indeed, a day of reckoning for those found guilty of crimes against humanity.'

Lord Owen's words, a virtual torrent of them, are to be found duplicated, photocopied and recorded by the official United Nations television unit at every stage of his passage from toughness, through the brink of exultation, to grim acceptance of what he now terms 'unpleasant reality'.

By the end of last week, the outlines of Lord Owen's 'unpleasant reality' became clear. Radovan Karadzic, the ebullient leader of Bosnia's Serbs, emerged from talks with him to discuss the division of Bosnia into three 'republics', the ethnic mini-states against which the mediators fought - without meaningful weaponry - for so long.

Under a plan conceived by presidents Milosevic of Serbia and Tudjman of Croatia, the future Bosnia will leave the Muslims with several islands of territory in a sea of hostile neighbours, propped up by faint promises of a corridor to the sea, with the ideal of a state shared between all religions buried in the ruins of Sarajevo.

According to nine principles presented to a glum Bosnian delegation on Thursday, the central government would be stripped of most executive powers, and left to rule a confederation whose Serbian and Croatian components, economically moribund, will serve chiefly as buffer states at the service of Belgrade and Zagreb.

There is even talk among the Serbian delegation of organised population exchanges to reinforce the purity of each ethnic area and to decrease the chance of new wars over rivers, boundaries or strategic hilltops.

If Bosnia is now destined to die through fragmentation, one of its many unhappy legacies is likely to be the effect on Muslim relations with the Western world.

Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign minister of Iran, said: 'We told Mr Owen a number of times that instead of talking to the Serbs and relying only on their goodwill, the international community should use force.' Lord Owen, he said, responded that if negotiations failed, 'then we will use force.'

However, Mr Velayati added, the Serbs made further gains and strengthened themselves. 'By the time he changed his position, a greater use of force was needed that the West was not prepared to commit itself to.

'There is a feeling that the Bosnians have been crushed because they were Muslims,' Mr Velayati concluded.

The Bosnian delegation to last week's talks comprised seven members of the country's ruling presidency, the leadership of which is supposed to pass in sequence from one member to another.

President Izetbegovic stayed in Sarajevo, fulminating against plots and betrayal, while the only Muslim member of the delegation, Fikret Abdic, emerged as the most convinced supporter of a negotiated peace.

The divisions among Bosnia's Muslims reflect the desperation of the hour, and may well descend into armed conflict among some who cling to the hopes offered by recent military success and others who see the government's position as hopeless.

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