Balkan summit wins EU backing

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The European Union yesterday threw its weight behind a summit involving the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia that could pave the way to an international peace conference on the former Yugoslavia. The idea was proposed by France amid fears that the conflict could escalate following Croatia's threat to order United Nations peace-keepers off its territory after the UN mandate expires at the end of next month.

Endorsing the French proposal, the EU foreign ministers said that the summit meeting could lead to an "international conference to deal with all matters relating to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia".

Many EU members are sceptical about an international conference because of the failure of earlier mediation efforts.

Yesterday the ministers agreed that the preliminary summit, to be attended by Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian President, Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian President and the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, would address the peace plan drawn up by the Contact Group of the US, France, Russia, Britain and Germany.

The plan proposes to divide Bosnia, giving 51 per cent to the Muslim-Croat federation and 49 per cent to the Bosnian Serbs.

While the Bosnian government has accepted the plan, the Bosnian Serbs have been holding out for more land. It is not clear whether other countries would attend the summit, although members of the Contact Group would be expected.

In a separate initiative, EU foreign ministers also took steps towards starting negotiations on the accession of Cyprus.

The ministers agreed in principle to a deal whereby talks will begin with Turkey on an EU customs union and a deadline will be set for the start of negotiations on Cyprus's EU membership. The breakthrough came after Greece agreed to lift its veto on a the customs union with Turkey on the understanding that within six months of next year's inter-governmental conference, when the EU aims to re-examine its rules, the EU will open talks with Cyprus.