Doubts overshadow London 'success'

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JOHN Major won praise yesterday for his handling of the London conference on the former Yugoslavia from both Bosnia's Muslim president and the leader of the republic's Serbian community.

However, some participants in the talks cautioned that the conflict was too complex to be solved by two days of set- piece speeches around a conference table.

The Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, congratulated both Mr Major and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary- General of the United Nations, who co- chaired the talks.

Mr Izetbegovic said: 'It was a triumph, perhaps, in that there was great skill in chairing the conference. Mr Major always found a way to bridge things. But there might turn out to be shortcomings. Many things remained unclear.'

Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the self-proclaimed Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, said that he agreed that the conference had been a success. 'I think that the conference took a big step forward. It is a triumph for the great tradition of British and European diplomacy, not to mention the United Nations,' he said.

However, some participants expressed doubts over the sincerity of such remarks and pointed out that as soon as the talks started on Wednesday, Mr Karadzic walked out, complaining that the Bosnian Serbs had only been granted observer status.

They added that Serbian delegates, led by President Slobodan Milosevic, had felt insulted by what they viewed as an orchestrated anti-Serbian ritual at the conference. 'They were not happy. They didn't get such a rough deal in the end, but their pride was hurt by all the attacks, to which they could only respond with silence,' one delegate said.

When the conference ended on Thursday and reporters asked Mr Milosevic for his verdict, he replied heatedly: 'Talks? What talks?' Mr Milosevic was implying that the meeting had been not so much a negotiating session as an opportunity for dozens of people to read aloud prepared texts of anti-Serbian rhetoric.

Nevertheless, if the London conference helps to scale down the Bosnian war, it will doubtless go down as the foreign policy highlight of Britain's six- month presidency of the European Community. Much depends on the follow-up talks that are planned to open in Geneva next week.

The conference was not intended to produce a detailed solution to the Yugoslav crisis, but rather a framework for future negotiations and a set of principles to govern an eventual settlement to the conflict. Another aim was to demonstrate to the Serbs that international opinion was solidly united in opposing Serbian 'ethnic cleansing' and territorial expansion.

While the London conference appeared to achieve these goals, it was less successful in addressing crucial issues such as post-war guarantees for the Serbian minority in Croatia, the de facto Croatian annexation of western Herzegovina, and the status of Macedonia, whose recognition as an independent state by the European Community is being blocked by Greece.