EU leaders agree on Bildt as Owen's successor

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The Independent Online

Paris and agencies

European Union leaders appointed Sweden's former prime minister Carl Bildt last night as their mediator in former Yugoslavia, with a mandate to launch new peace negotiations as soon as Bosnian Serbs release their UN hostages. The French President, Jacques Chirac, said after a three- hour dinner summit that the 15 EU leaders unanimously chose the 45-year- old conservative Swedish opposition leader, who will be advised by French General Bertrand de Lapresle, a former commander of the UN Protection Force. Mr Chirac said Mr Bildt should contact all parties to the Bosnian conflict to resume negotiations "as soon as the hostages have been freed".

The Bosnian Serbs are still holding 145 UN soldiers and observers, including six Britons, two weeks after taking them in reprisal for Nato air strikes.

Mr Bildt will replace Lord Owen, who ended three years in the job with a plea to the United States yesterday to compromise for the sake of peace.

Mr Chirac said he hoped Mr Bildt would be made the sole mediator on behalf of the five-power Contact Group, binding the United States and Russia to the EU. But he acknowledged Washington and Moscow had yet to agree. John Major said it would be a "perfectly acceptable outcome".

Lord Owen earlier briefed the French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, on the stalled Yugoslavia peace process, saying he saw "a window of opportunity for negotiations" this summer. The leaders spent most of last night's talks on the agenda for three forthcoming summits - EU-US talks in Washington next Wednesday, the annual Group of Seven industrial powers' meeting in Halifax, Canada, next week and the 26-27 June EU summit in Cannes.