Belgrade fails to restrain rebel Serbs: The warlords across the Drina river defy their patron at every turn

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'THE DOGS of war have slipped their lead, and it appears that no matter how much their master tries, he cannot bring them to heel. The more he chases after them, the more tired he looks.' The author of that line, a Western diplomat, was summing up the current state of play in the former Yugoslavia. The dogs in this case are the Bosnian Serbs; the master is President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.

For almost three weeks now Mr Milosevic has tried to use his power, influence and tactical skill to outmanoeuvre his client warlords in Bosnia and force them to agree to an international peace plan. But the Bosnian Serbs have defied their patron and mentor at every turn. Yesterday they did it again.

On Tuesday, Mr Milosevic wanted representatives from Serbia and Montenegro, together with Serb leaders from breakaway Yugoslav republics, to meet tomorrow in Belgrade to agree to peace. The idea was to let representatives of 'all' Serbs decide the future instead of leaving it to the referendum called by the Bosnian Serbs.

A Bosnian Serb delegation will attend Mr Milosevic's pan-Serb assembly, Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader said yesterday. But he repeated his rejection of a proposal for the Belgrade meeting to vote on Bosnian Serb acceptance of the Vance- Owen peace plan. 'This assembly cannot take any decisions for us,' Mr Karadzic told a press conference.

Mr Milosevic is widely held responsible for the war, but it appears Western leaders believe he can also be responsible for the peace. So far he has failed to deliver and, according to some observers, his struggle with the Bosnian Serbs has weakened him. 'Milosevic is weak now, yes. Perhaps the weakest he has been in years, but he is not an easy man to finish off,' said Mihajlo Markovic, a Serbian member of parliament and the vice-president of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement party.

That is why, Mr Markovic said, the opposition coalition Depos, including the SRM, has decided to boycott the assembly if it goes ahead. Mr Markovic said Mr Milosevic's plan was to outflank the Bosnian Serbs or in their absence get all other Serbs, including the opposition parties, to support Vance-Owen in a 'show' assembly which would then declare the Bosnian referendum illegal. 'In this way he can say to the West 'I have done everything. Now please lift sanctions.' and internally he can say Bosnian Serbs are anti-nationalists.'

It is not clear what Mr Milosevic's next move will be. Also unknown is the true position of the ultra-extreme nationalist Vojislav Seselj and his Serbian Radical Party, which holds swing votes in both the Serbian and federal assemblies. So far Mr Seselj has supported the Bosnian Serbs but has refrained from attacking Mr Milosevic, who is widely considered to have been his patron. But should he sense weakness, Mr Seselj might turn, adding further to the President's already considerable woes.