Bosnia peace deal set for signing today

Ohio talks: Tudjman returns to Dayton, boosting hopes of agreement to end Europe's bloodiest conflict since the Second World War

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia was heading back to the Bosnian peace talks in Dayton, Ohio yesterday, in the clearest sign yet that 19 days of non-stop negotiation at a Midwestern airforce base were on the brink of producing a deal to end the bloodiest conflict in Europe since the Second World War.

As the three delegations from Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia were making a last push to tie up an accord, optimism was being tempered by renewed demands from the Bosnian government for a written guarantee of US arms to counter Serb superiority in the region - demands which sources described as a "potential deal-breaker" if pushed to the limit.

A Western diplomatic source said the parties had settled the matter of elections for a new Bosnian state, although the fate of Sarajevo, two disputed land corridors and the constitution were still under negotiation. Croatian television, however, said the factions had agreed a post-war constitution for Bosnia and planned to negotiate territorial disputes through the night.

Acknowledging these last-minute doubts, Nick Burns, the State Department spokesman, insisted yesterday that the outcome could still "go either way". The one certainty is that the largely secret talks in a complex at Wright Patterson air force base at Dayton will wrap up today. "An event," in State Department parlance, has been scheduled for 10am, which will be either a ceremony at which a draft treaty will be initialled - or an announcement that the most promising attempt to end the three-and-a-half- year war has failed. The signals were that it would not. Speaking at Zagreb airport, Mr Tudjman said a deal was on the cards. "If not, then they would not call me back. The talks would be finished by Monday," he said. "It is expected an agreement will be initialled then."

Spurred by increasingly impatient international mediators, led by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, in person, Presidents Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia were attempting to resolve those issues which from the outset have been the most difficult.

The precise division of Bosnia between the Muslim-Croat federation and the Bosnian Serbs, the constitution, the question of the Bosnian Serb areas in the east and north-west and the status of Sarajevo and the corridors linking that city with the remaining Muslim stronghold of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia have been at the hub of negotiations from the start.

Indications have been multiplying that the climax is at hand. First, Mr Christopher returned to Dayton from the Asian-Pacific summit in Osaka, Japan. Then the Bosnian Foreign Minister, Muhammed Sacirbey, announced his resignation - because he had been largely ignored at key moments of decision, but also to clear the way for a Croat to be appointed to one of the country's most senior posts. This would bolster the shaky Muslim- Croat federation as it proceeds to take charge of 51 per cent of Bosnian territory. Yesterday, translators were working on the final text of documents which would be initialled today.

Thus far the Dayton summit has yielded two partial accords, one reinforcing the alliance between Muslims and Croats, the other providing for a peaceful return to Croatia of East Slavonia, seized by the Serbs at the outset of the war. But the heart of the issue has been the future of Bosnia, and even with a Dayton agreement, major obstacles will remain.

In the short term, President Bill Clinton must sell the planned deployment of 20,000 US ground troops to a hostile Congress and an unconvinced public, and prevent Bosnia from being entangled in the bitter debate over the US budget.

Leading article, page 20

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