'Friendly persuasion' nails Karadzic: Vance-Owen peace plan is finally agreed but far from smoke-filled rooms in Greece passions and hatreds bode ill for UN force in Bosnia

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia kept Radovan Karadzic in the dentist's chair for 12 hours overnight, to persuade him to sign the Vance- Owen plan. He was joined for most of the time by the rest of the Serbian heavy mob - President Momir Bulatovic of Montenegro and President Dobrica Cosic of federal Yugoslavia.

Constantine Mitsotakis of Greece was there, too, until 2.30am, after which he left the Serbs to slog it out among themselves. Through the walls, other conference delegates could hear if not the sound of teeth being pulled, then at least some very serious shouting. That Mr Cosic's spokesman yesterday described the exercise as 'a friendly persuasion' only served to reinforce the impression that the Bosnian Serb leader was made to feel he no longer had much choice in the matter. A Greek source described it as a 'Serbo-Serbian negotiation with Greek muscle-pulling'.

Mr Milosevic had made it clear early on that he was going to make Mr Karadzic physically sign in Athens rather than merely promise to recommend the plan to his assembly on Wednesday. 'Milosevic told Karadzic he doesn't trust that 'parliament' of his,' said a source.

The Belgrade President was taking no chances, because the new sanctions imposed by the international community on Serbia last week risked seriously weakening his own political position. Other hardliners, such as Vojislav Seselj, were circling like vultures around the Presidential palace in Belgrade should Mr Milosevic come back empty-handed. Mr Mitsotakis, with a foot in both the Balkan and the Nato camps, was able to pitch in with the first-hand message to Mr Karadzic that the Americans meant business by their repeated threats of military action. He, too, has a position to think about now that the tightening of sanctions will no longer allow Greek companies reliant on trade with Serbia to circumvent them.

Cyrus Vance, the outgoing UN envoy, and Vitaly Churkin, the Russian observer, kept Mr Milosevic on side by promising members of his delegation that the sanctions could gradually be lifted once there were signs that the peace plan was being 'implemented in good faith'. In another room Lord Owen spent a great deal of time with Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian President, to reassure him there would be no dirty deal done against the Bosnian Muslims, as separately did Reginald Bartholomew, who as US envoy, could be considered by Mr Izetbegovic the nearest thing around to an ally. Lord Owen and Mr Bartholomew were both worried about what the other was saying. The silent member of the party was Thorvald Stoltenberg of Norway who, as luck would have it, was due to take over from Mr Vance the very weekend of the conference. He spent his time shadowing his predecessor. As the hand-forcing continued in the Serbian chamber, Lord Owen and Mr Vance were busy drafting and redrafting the three-paragraph statement according to the latest information on what Mr Karadzic had been persuaded to sign.

Somewhere along the line, Mr Milosevic found time for a meeting with President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, prompting speculation that they might be striking a deal on territorial swaps. Hence the conference that had been hailed as a plenary round-table of all the warring sides in Bosnia and their ethnic parent-states proceeded as a number of parallel bilaterals in rooms and suites of the Astir seaside hotel complex.

Thus far, the only remotely plenary session had been a buffet dinner on the previous evening - but even then private huddles immediately developed over separate tables. But by the time a pale midday sun shone through the hotel windows, news came that Mr Karadzic was ready. He was brought in and seated at the signing table before the three witnesses - Lord Owen, Mr Vance and Mr Stoltenberg - and the other participants.

'But there were a few more wriggles from him before we could actually nail his hand to the paper,' said one source. He tried for a final redrafting, but failed. He finally put his name to the document with a beaming Mr Mitsotakis standing behind him and holding the back of his chair. Mr Mitsotakis' spokesman was dispatched to read a statement to the press, not to deny the Greek government the credit. The plenary had lasted 20 minutes. All that remained was for Lord Owen to thank Mr Vance at a press conference for his efforts of the past eight months.

(Photograph omitted)

Leading article, page 15