Broad solution sought for Balkan conflict

BY MICHAEL SHERIDAN AND STEPHEN GOODWIN

Renewed fighting in former Yugoslavia brought international efforts yesterday to win a ceasefire between Croatia and its rebel Serbs and to seek a broader solution to the conflict.

In Geneva, the European Union mediator, Lord Owen, said Croats and Serbs had been invited to talks on Friday, while the UN envoy, Yasushi Akashi, spent yesterday trying to defuse the situation on the war front. Mr Akashi later announced a "verbal agreement" between Croat and Serb commanders to a total cessation of hostilities. At the same time, British officials were working on meetings for the weekend in London when senior figures from key countries will attend VE Day ceremonies.

Their deliberations will be preceded by a meeting of the five-nation Contact Group in London on Friday. But there was no sign yesterday of any progress to overcome fundamental splits between the members - Britain, the US, France, Germany and Russia.

Some diplomats suggest that the issue of former Yugoslavia could move up the agenda at the summit between President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow next week. John Major will also be attending, to mark the end of the Second World War in Europe.

The British Government may use the planned presence of Franjo Tudjman at this weekend's VE Day ceremony in London to put pressure on the Croatian president to refrain from any further military action.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, told the Commons yesterday that President Tudjman had been invited to the ceremony some time ago but his invitation was under review. "It may be a useful opportunity to ram home to him the views of the Government and this House about the risks he is taking and the dangers he is incurring for his people as well as for his neighbours," Mr Hurd said.

Mr Tudjman could be told Croatia's hopes for a closer relationship with the European Union are in jeopardy. British officials indicated yesterday that Britain and some other EU nations would like to suspend talks on a trade agreement between Croatia and the EU. Germany and Austria are unlikely to endorse such a move.

Mr Hurd's statement came after an emergency question from Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, who asked if it was "appropriate that the celebration of peace in Europe should be attended by the government that has just broken the peace?"

Pressure increased on the Tory backbenches for a withdrawal of British troops should their safety be threatened. Mr Hurd agreed they should not be exposed to "unacceptable risk" but emphasised there was no fighting in central Bosnia where most of the British troops in Unprofor are deployed. The Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, said the situation was under constant review. "

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