Human need hastens Geneva peace talks

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The Independent Online
THE Bosnia talks in Geneva on Monday, bringing together the presidents of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, the foreign ministers of Europe and the commanders of the United Nations, will open with little optimism among the negotiators who suspect they are taking place at the wrong time.

In an ideal world, some believe, the right time for a summit would have been two months from now, at the end of January. For one thing, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia is too preoccupied with his country's parliamentary elections on 19 December; he is determined to use the poll to squash his former ally and now rival, Vojislav Seselj.

And if, as the negotiators expect, the Muslims are preparing to launch a new offensive in the spring, possibly as early as March, the right time for a summit would have been between December and then. As Lord Owen said in a speech last night: 'The Bosnian government and their military are now confident they have enough arms to fight through the winter and even launch a spring offensive in 1994.'

Sources say, however, that Lord Owen was persuaded to bring forward the summit date after taking coffee with President Francois Mitterrand in Paris. Leaving aside the political obstacles, the President argued, what would happen to the suffering people of Bosnia in the two months until January?

Lord Owen took the point that the emphasis had to be on the humanitarian angle. Consequently, as the European Union's negotiator, he had breakfast in Brussels with Willy Claes, the Foreign Minister of Belgium, which holds the EU presidency. Mr Claes went through the EU diary to find a day for the Bosnia talks and spotted a rare empty slot this Monday.

The dilemma posed by the conflict between the West's humanitarian and strategic goals in Bosnia is making itself increasingly felt. Lord Owen said in the Churchill Lecture he delivered at Guildhall in London last night: 'We must also face up to the reality that food aid is feeding the armies of all sides. The arms embargo is being evaded by all sides. Economic sanctions are hitting hard not just the Serbian and Montenegrin people but dragging down the neighbouring countries . . . There must be limits to this intervention and it could become ever harder to justify. Governments are right, therefore, as an incentive for peace to define the conditions for suspending sanctions . . .'

Lord Owen suggested that if there were no solution by next year, the West may finally extract itself altogether: 'If the Bosnian Muslims fail to compromise I believe governments will start to relax their commitment and begin to question the continuation of UN military forces on the ground. The humanitarian effort would of course continue as best it could without military escorts. The parties tragically then would be left to fight it out with no holds barred and the misery and mayhem of what was once Yugoslavia would continue.'

SARAJEVO - Up to 1,115 Sarajevans are due to quit their city today, the second mass evacuation from the Bosnian capital this month, a city official said. AFP reports that some 17 buses will run a shuttle service to the Bosnian Serb-held suburb of Lukavica.