Bosnian Serbs 'ready to agree peace': Karadzic calls halt to fighting after referendum rejects Vance-Owen plan by 96 per cent

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The Independent Online
TRIUMPHANT Bosnian Serbs yesterday proclaimed the Vance-Owen peace plan for Bosnia dead and buried at a session of their self-proclaimed parliament in Pale near Sarajevo dedicated to announcing final results of the weekend referendum on the plan.

But with the prospect of military intervention receding ever further into the distance and the United States and Europe still at loggerheads over how to proceed next in the Bosnian war, Radovan Karadzic, self-styled president of the Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serb state) appeared in conciliatory mood.

'The peace plan is dead - long live the peace process,' he announced, after officials reported a hefty 96 per cent of Bosnian Serb voters opted against Vance-Owen, with a derisory 1 per cent in favour.

'The Republika Srpska has halted all military operations by its armed forces and is ready to establish peace in keeping with ceasefire agreements signed with other sides in the conflict,' read a declaration, adopted unanimously by the Serbian deputies.

'The referendum has finished a phase in our battle,' Mr Karadzic said. 'Now it is completely clear the Serbian nation in Republika Srpska is decisive about taking its fate into its own hands. The Serb people have decided under no conditions will they give up the Republika Srpska. No people have ever relinquished their state without major force being applied against them.'

In a breathtakingly cynical gesture that would be funny if it did not insult the memory of tens of thousands of Muslims killed in Serb-held Bosnia during 13 months of fighting, Mr Karadzic went on to express his 'thanks' to Muslims who, he claimed, turned out massively to vote against the plan alongside Serbs. 'I want to say this government will do everything to guarantee and protect their rights according to the most liberal European standards,' he said.

The Pale parliament not only sealed Bosnian Serb rejection of Vance-Owen, but deepened a rift between the Bosnian Serbs and their erstwhile controllers in Belgrade. Belgrade remains, at least on paper, committed to seeing the Vance-Owen plan put into action, although the economic blockade Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic promised to introduce against the Bosnian Serbs has mysteriously failed to come about.

But with no sign of the Bosnian Serbs giving an inch, international peace envoys Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg, with the strong support of the Russians, have been reduced to promoting a programme to introduce the peace plan to Bosnia 'step by step'. This boils down to introducing the plan in the 30 per cent of Bosnia that is under Croat or Muslim control. But even this drastically limited objective looked unlikely to get off the ground as Croat-Muslim fights raged on in the disputed town of Vitez, central Bosnia, only yards from a British army base.

Several people were reported killed in exchanges of fire in the town, the scene of heavy clashes a month ago. Under the Vance-Owen plan, Vitez belongs to a Croat-dominated province. But local Muslims, radicalised by a recent massacre by Croats in a nearby village, reject the deal.

In Geneva, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the UN Special Envoy on Human Rights, accused the Vance-Owen plan of actually 'stimulating 'ethnic cleansing' '. In a report, he said the 'implementation of the plan stimulated certain acts, designed to create a fait accompli, before a final solution.'

'The lack of an effective international response to counter the policy of 'ethnic cleansing' perpetuated by Serb forces created the precedent which has allowed them to continue,' he went on. 'This encouraged Croat forces to adopt the same policy.'

(Photograph omitted)