Britain pins faith on Milosevic to end crisis: Annika Savill, Diplomatic Editor, analyses the consequences of the Bosnian-Serb vote in Pale

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THE REJECTION of the Vance-Owen peace plan at Pale gives the Americans a breathing space before having to contemplate what they do not want: sending 20,000 or more ground troops to Bosnia to implement it.

As Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, yesterday extended his tour of Europe to get the allies to agree to limited military action instead, an American diplomat said that the plan had in fact been 'dead for a long time'. Furthermore, the Christopher consultations, officially confidential, have now been leaked so thoroughly that failure to get the allies to agree on what the Americans term 'more vigorous measures' would mean a serious loss of face for President Bill Clinton at home.

It is thus natural that the Americans should be capitalising on the Bosnian Serb assembly's 'no' vote. 'If the peace track is temporarily put into semi-abeyance, then the pressure track gathers an intensity,' said one European diplomat. 'And it could gather an intensity very quickly.'

The British, however, appear to be putting faith in Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic to persuade the Bosnian Serbs to accept the plan. They see Mr Milosevic using the Yugoslav army to close his border to the Bosnian Serbs as a clever counter-proposal to the US ideas. It also removes the justification for air strikes on Serbian supply lines.

'Milosevic is massively on the side of shoving the peace plan up the noses of the Bosnian Serbs,' said one British official source. 'He is clearly investing considerable time and effort to do this.' Closing the border would both cut off the Bosnian Serbs and provide 'a key test of Milosevic's real interests and intentions,' the source said.

What is not clear is exactly what Mr Milosevic is meant to get the Bosnian Serbs to do in order to show that they accept the plan after all. But given that the 'deputies' themselves control Bosnian Serb militias on the ground, nobody will send troops in to implement the plan while the 'no' vote stands. Mr Milosevic would presumably have to get the assembly to vote again, the right way this time.

Should the Bosnian Serbs agree, the implementation of the peace plan would come into effect after two UN Security Council resolutions - one endorsing the plan, the other after a detailed report from the Secretary-General on the practicalities of implementation. The first step is the voluntary handover of arms within 10 days; the second, the withdrawal - also voluntary - of forces to their ethnic provinces within 45 days. Meanwhile, there is meant to be a build-up of UN troops to the estimated 50,000 needed to monitor progress.

What if the Serbs refuse to withdraw and their gains remain frozen in place? Then the West will be forced to take some action. 'On the one hand the presence of troops buttresses the plan; on the other, if it falls apart, we will have a lot of troops there in a war situation,' said one European diplomat. 'That is why the US - all of us - have to make careful judgements about the extent of our commitment.'