Bosnia peace talks: Few promising signs as US negotiator tables 10-section agreement to the parties at opening session

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What it all means - questions and answers

Is there any real hope of peace?

More than ever before, but the mediators must reconcile the impossible: the government's demand for a united, sovereign Bosnia and the Serbs' desire for an independent statelet that might ultimately join Serbia. The three parties - Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia - have agreed on the basic principles for a post-war settlement, with two entities (one Serb, one non-Serb) in Bosnia, free elections and respect for human rights. But the broad brush-strokes are meaningless until the leaders paint in the details. The defeat of Croatia's Serbs and recent government gains in Bosnia have altered the balance of power. The Bosnian Serbs risk losing all if they do not make a deal, but risk losing their statelet if they do.

Who is attending the talks and who is not?

These are to be "proximity" talks: three Balkan delegations in separate rooms, with negotiatiors scuttling about conducting corridor diplomacy.Bosnia is represented by President Alija Izetbegovic and other officials The Serb delegation, which represents also the Srpska Republic in Bosnia, is led by Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, accompanied bymembers of the Bosnian Serb leadership but not the main civilian and military leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. The Croatian contingent is led by President Franjo Tudjman who has said he will not stay long but will delegate decision-making powers to other Croat officials.

The world is represented by Richard Holbrooke, the US Assistant Secretary of State who has cajoled the parties to the table. He is joined by delegates from the other four Contact Group nations, Britain, France, Germany and Russia, and by Carl Bildt, the European Union's mediator.

Why Ohio?

Washington chose Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, as a suitable location from which to exclude the press, but one which had comfortable accommodation for the three delegations. The mediators say the talks could last for a month. The Balkan participants are suggesting a shorter stay.

What do the parties want?

The Srpska Republic wants recognition of its statehood and the right to confederal links with Serbia, the division of Sarajevo, access to the Adriatic Sea, a widening of the corridor in northern Bosnia to include the Croat-held Orasje pocket and the return of some land recently captured by the government. Serbia's main demand is the lifting of sanctions. The Bosnian government seeks a united Bosnia and an end to territorial encroachments by Belgrade and Zagreb, an end to the division of Sarajevo, a corridor to the government-held enclave of Gorazde, a ban on suspected war criminals standing in future elections, an end to the international arms embargo on Bosnia and control of the Serb-held town of Brcko. Croatia is mostly interested in re-taking Eastern Slavonia, a slice of rich farmland still held by Serb rebels. It also has an eye on large areas of western Bosnia, where the Bosnian Croats, with Zagreb's encouragement, are keen on union with Croatia.

What are the main difficulties?

Many and varied, but falling into two basic categories: constitutional and territorial. First, how to share power among the two entities (the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Srpska Republic) and what kind of confederal links the entities should have with neighbouring states.

How is the ceasefire holding?

Very well, according to the UN. All was quiet along the 600-mile confrontation line yesterday, and the number of ceasefire violations has decreased.

What happens if there is a peace deal?

Nato will swing into action within days, according to the US, which plans to send about 20,000 soldiers to Bosnia. The British and French would deploy fresh troops and order those in blue UN berets to switch. The Russians (perceived as friendly to Serbs) and Islamic nations (ditto to Sarajevo) would also send troops. Some in Bosnia will prepare to take revenge but most will give thanks and consider how best to rebuild their lives.

What if there is not?

The 60-day cease-fire brokered by Mr Holbrooke in October will collapse, but we are unlikely to see much new fighting over the winter. Instead, the Bosnian government will probably use the time to re-arm and re-train, ready for a spring offensive against the northern Serb stronghold of Banja Luka. The rebel Serbs will dig in, wondering nervously how much support they can expect from Belgrade. Many more civilians, on both sides, will redouble efforts to escape to another country. The Croatian army will storm Eastern Slavonia and probably capture it within a few days, forcing thousands more Serbs to flee. The UN will soldier on, ill-equipped for the impossible task of preserving a peace that does not exist. The show will move on to death or victory on the battle-field.

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