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Bosnia peace thrust in danger

Sarajevo (agencies) - There were disturbing signs last night that the Bosnian peace process could be falling apart, as the Bosnian government pulled out of talks scheduled for tomorrow in New York and the Bosnian army's 5th corps commander, General Atif Dudakovic, said that an attack by government forces on the rebel Serb stronghold of Banja Luka in northwestern Bosnia would take place soon.

At the same time the Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, pledged that Zagreb would soon wrest back Eastern Slavonia, the last chunk of Croatian territory still held by separatist Serbs.

US and European Union mediators were to meet the foreign ministers of Bosnia, Croatia and rump Yugoslavia in New York tomorrow to work on constitutional details for a post-war Bosnia, building on "basic principles" agreed in Geneva two weeks ago. But President Alija Izetbegovic's office said that Muhamed Sacirbey, the Foreign Minister, had been ordered not to go to the meeting.

The Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, had said earlier that there was no room for compromise on several key constitutional issues, including secession. His remark signalled that the main stumbling block was Serb insistence that their mini-state envisaged in a Bosnia peace deal should have the right to secede and join Serbia. "If the state is not stable, viable, a source of stability not instability, there won't be any talks," Mr Silajdzic said, just before the boycott announcement.

In an interview broadcast on Bosnian television, General Dudakovic said Bosnian forces would "pursue the Chetniks [the separatist Serbs] for as long as they remain in [Bosnian] Krajina," as the territory of north-western Bosnia is known.

General Dudakovic said that the Bosnian army objective was that its 5th corps in the north and its 7th corps in the centre should link up at Banja Luka.

Meanwhile, Mr Tudjman, speaking during a visit to Vinkovci, a Croatian town close to the buffer zone separating Eastern Slavonia from Croatia, promised the swift recapture of the region's main town of Vukovar and said Croatia would soon control the entire Serb-held swath of territory. "I promise today that we will soon enter Ilok and Vukovar and will proclaim our sovereignty over the west bank of the Danube," Mr Tudjman said, referring to two of the main towns in the strip of territory backing on to the Danube river, which forms Croatia's eastern border with Serbia. A Croatian attack on the territory could bring Serbia into the war.

Bosnian government troops and Serb forces yesterday launched fresh artillery and infantry assaults. Official media on both sides accused the other of pre-dawn attacks around Brcko in northern Bosnia on a key land corridor linking Banja Luka with the mass of Serb-held territory in the east. In Banja Luka, Serb military authorities reported Muslim attacks on Gradacac, west of Brcko, and Croatian artillery attacks on Bosanski Novi .

The Bosnian Serb army also reported fierce fighting near Sanski Most, south of Banja Luka, with many people killed.

Should tomorrow's meeting be scuppered, it would be the first significant stumble in United States envoy Richard Holbrooke's peace odyssey, which began in August. The upset comes after separatist Serb forces pulled their heavier weapons back from Sarajevo after being battered by Nato air strikes, and in the wake of major Bosnian government and Croat gains on the battlefield.