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Balkan deal won in a video game

THE BALKAN delegations enjoyed a fleeting moment of unity right at the start of the peace conference which culminated in last week's agreement to end the war in Bosnia.

Having been herded half-way across the world by their American hosts, the Bosnian, Serb and Croat negotiators discovered that the venue for the conference, the Wright-Patterson air base in Dayton, Ohio, was an officially designated smoke-free zone. Whereupon they laid down a joint ultimatum: no cigarettes, no talks. No talks, no peace.

The Americans agreed to waive house rules, setting the tone for a three- week exercise which was to depend for its success on the ability of the US delegation to do as they do in the Balkans and abandon the genteel orthodoxies of international mediation.

Led by Richard Holbrooke, the US assistant secretary of state for European affairs, the 30-strong American team engaged with the Balkan leaders in tennis court, parking lot and bedroom diplomacy; they bullied, bluffed and improvised; they drank wine and ate lobster, they sang songs and they played the highest-stakes video game since the invention of the computer.

Evidence of just how tantalisingly thin the line was between a settlement and prolonged war was provided in the early hours of Monday morning.

The Americans had set a deadline of 10am on Monday for the talks to conclude, whatever the result. After a game of tennis on Sunday with Franjo Tudjman, the President of Croatia, Mr Holbrooke met at night in his room with Slobodan Milosevic, the President of Serbia, and Haris Silajdzic, the Prime Minister of Bosnia.

The business at hand, which was the chief business of the entire talks, was map-making. Up to that point the Serbs had only managed to retain 45 per cent of Bosnian territory. Mr Milosevic said he could not return home with anything less than 49 per cent. Mr Silajdzic said he wanted a bigger chunk of land on the outskirts of Sarajevo.

At 4am on Monday a compromise was reached. Mr Milosevic, having regained a piece of territory captured by the Croats in fighting with the Bosnian Serbs, magnanimously told Mr Silajdzic: "You deserve Sarajevo: you stayed there through the siege and the shelling."

A final deal having seemingly been struck, a jubilant Mr Holbrooke dispatched an emissary to the bedroom of Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian President. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, wearing a coat over his pyjamas, Mr Izetbegovic stumbled into a room full of happy faces and bottles of chilled Californian wine. Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, shook his hand.

Then Mate Granic, the Foreign Minister of Croatia, entered the room and inspected the new map. A man esteemed by his fellow negotiators for the gentleness of his disposition, Mr Granic exploded with rage. He pounded the table and swept the map to the floor. "Impossible!" he shouted. "Impossible!"

The Americans resolved to extend the deadline, but this did not prevent the Balkan delegations from going to their rooms to start packing their bags. At midday on Monday the planes were on the tarmac ready to take them all back home. The delegates walked out to the parking lot. Mr Holbrooke and Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister who led the Europeans at the talks, stepped out after them and urged them to give peace another try.

President Bill Clinton then made a critical intervention. He phoned Mr Tudjman, the member of the presidential trio who owed most to the US. "The time is now," Mr Clinton told him. Mr Tudjman agreed and Mr Milosevic obtained most of the land he wanted. It was now up to the Bosnians, as Mr Christopher informed Mr Izetbegovic, to shave off the slivers required to make up the Serbs' magic 49 per cent.

At which point, the negotiations entered virtual reality. With a general at the joystick, they took a simulated flight over a map of Bosnia so detailed it marked not only gravel roads but goat paths. The game lasted deep into the night. The terrain in dispute lay in the thin Serb-held corridor of Brcko, whose ownership the Bosnians demanded should be settled by international arbitration. The US delegates turned away in despair. Shortly before midnight Mr Christopher's team began drafting a "failure document".

At 8.00 the next morning Mr Milosevic trudged through the snow to the Croat compound to suggest to Mr Tudjman that they draft a statement of their own blaming the collapse of the talks on Bosnian intransigence. Mr Tudjman argued the Brcko dispute should not be allowed to ruin the opportunity for peace. Why not accept an international commission to decide Brcko's fate? Mr Milosevic agreed and, tears in his eyes, conveyed the good news to a happy and surprised Mr Christopher.

Faced with the "failure" document, Mr Izetbegovic was left with no option but to agree to add his initials to the peace agreement. "Well," he told Mr Christopher, "it's not a just peace, but my people need peace."