Bosnia's year of agony and division: After 12 months of civil war, further Balkan conflicts could be started by the carve-up of the republic, writes Tony Barber

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ON THE weekend of 4-5 April last year the darkness of war enveloped Bosnia-Herzegovina. The artillery shells and sniper bullets that echoed around Sarajevo signalled the start of Europe's most vicious conflict since the 1940s.

One year and tens of thousands of deaths later the worst fears of the pessimists appear to have come true. Blood-chilling acts of savagery committed in the name of national ambition or survival have destroyed Bosnia's intricate ethnic patterns, making it seemingly impossible for the republic's three dominant communities - Muslims, Serbs and Croats - to live together again. More than one in three of Bosnia's pre-war population of 4.4 million have fled their homes, causing a refugee crisis whose impact stretches from Croatia and Hungary to Germany, Austria, Sweden, France and even Britain.

Despite the best efforts of the United Nations and the European Community, the war still has the potential to expand. It could set ablaze for a second time the smouldering Serb-Croat tensions in Croatia, while kindling simultaneous fires in the southern Balkans. But even if hostilities do not spread the West seems certain to be drawn ever more deeply into Bosnia. Having upheld the principle of a united Bosnian state, and having identified the Serbs as the chief aggressors, the West has left itself little room for manoeuvre. By mid-April Nato planes will be patrolling the Bosnian skies.

To foreign eyes, the war is notable for its chaos and brutality. 'There is now no simple front line, but rather a complex pattern of conflict for the control of individual towns, villages and even fields,' Colonel Michael Dewar, an expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in The World Today. 'An international force attempting to stop the fighting would have to separate feuding factions all over the country and negotiate with, or impose a military defeat on, numerous local militia commanders whose control over their own men is often incomplete.'

The war is several conflicts all at once: Serb against Muslim, Serb against Croat, Croat against Muslim, and, in the special case of Sarajevo, the defenders of a city renowned for its national diversity and tolerance against Serbian tanks and artillery.

Despite this confusion one constant factor stands out. This is the relentless Serbian and Croatian drive to divide Bosnia at the Muslims' expense. Muslims made up 44 per cent of Bosnia's pre-war population, Serbs 32 per cent and Croats 17 per cent. However, at the EC-sponsored negotiations in Lisbon before the war, the Serbs demanded 65 per cent of the republic and the Croats 35 per cent.

In his book, The Fall of Yugoslavia, the British Balkan expert Misha Glenny quotes a law professor at Sarajevo University, Zdravko Grebo, as saying that the Serbs and Croats later conceded that the Muslims could be awarded 5 per cent of the land. 'They want to create a Muslim reservation, like the ones in North America for Indians, only with much less land. The only industry which the Muslims will then have is tourism - people will come and pay to see the only indigenous Muslims in Europe,' he said

Last May, the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and the Bosnian Croat leader, Mate Boban, met in the Austrian city of Graz and signed a document affirming the dismemberment of the republic. Since that time, for all the negotiations over maps in Geneva and New York, and for all that the Muslims and Croats are nominal military allies, the de facto division of Bosnia has proceeded apace.

The ultimate Serbian goal remains the unification of all Serb-held lands in the Balkans: Serbia proper, Montenegro, the self-styled Republic of Serbian Krajina (carved out of Croatia in 1991) and the self-styled Srpska Republic (the Serbian spoils of war in Bosnia). This goal requires the expulsion, or the political, economic and cultural disinheritance, of all non- Serbs in these lands.

President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, aware of the immense economic pressures on his country, and anxious not to provoke deeper Western involvement in the Balkans, is reluctant to announce the creation of a Greater Serbian state too soon. Not so the man who has emerged as the second most powerful politician in Serbia. Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, said last month that the formation of Greater Serbia should be preceded by the merger of Serb-controlled lands in Bosnia and Croatia.

At the same time the Bosnian Croats have set about the unification of Croatia with western Herzegovina, which abuts Croatia's Adriatic coast. Last July they christened this area Herzeg-Bosnia and began its systematic annexation to Croatia. The Bosnian Croat forces, armed and supported by Zagreb, recently created five state enterprises for the energy industry, postal services, railways, roads, finance and commerce. All are geared to co-operation not with the rest of Bosnia but with Croatia.

Western powers believe they have a strong interest in preventing Bosnia's carve-up since it could encourage territorial ambitions elsewhere. Practically every nation, from Albanians to Slav Macedonians, could in theory claim someone else's land. To prevent a free-for-all in former Communist areas of Europe, the West needs to set out a vision for the whole region. A Bosnian settlement, should one be achieved, would not in itself stabilise Croatia, the Serbian province of Kosovo and Macedonia. Unless this point is grasped, the Balkans will be burning one year from now.

(Photograph omitted)