Izetbegovic's U-turn puzzles the diplomats: Battlefield exhaustion takes its toll as Geneva plan falters and American policy is in disarray

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WESTERN policy-makers were yesterday trying to divine an explanation for the Bosnian President's unexpected call to reject the latest Geneva peace plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Clearly, they believe, the plan to carve up the country into three ethnic entities, giving the Muslims 30 per cent of the land, is the best deal President Alija Izetbegovic could ever hope for.

Therefore, was he posturing? Was his call on Sunday for rejection part of a ploy to appear tough in public while pressing Bosnian hardliners to accept Geneva's 'final offer' behind the scenes? Or was it simply a recognition that the plan is destined for defeat when a special assembly meets in central Bosnia on Friday to decide its fate?

Some observers suggested that perhaps Mr Izetbegovic was trying to hold out for further concessions from the Bosnian Serbs, who under the latest deal agreed to withdraw to leave them with 50 per cent of Bosnia's territory.

But the likelihood of any further Serbian concessions are pooh-poohed by EC and UN officials who point out that it took three months to get all sides to the table after the Vance-Owen plan collapsed in April.

A UN official said: 'There is very little scope for readjustment. I don't think the other parties (Serbs and Croats) want to start negotiating again . . . if the Muslims reject this plan and if we could succeed in getting everyone back to the table again, what are the chances of getting a better deal? Unlikely. The Muslims have a losing hand.'

Sources close to Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg, the international mediators who brokered the plan, said there was a certain amount of gloom upon learning that just hours after Mr Izetbegovic returned to Sarajvo from the Geneva peace talks he decribed the plan as unacceptable. 'There was a feeling that if anyone was going to speak out on behalf of the plan it would have been President Izetbegovic . . . His call to reject is worrying,' said one source.

British officials were hopeful that Mr Izetbegovic did not mean what he said and that he had only adopted a negotiating strategy to sell the plan to the most radical elements of his government. 'But as of today there is no real explanation,' one official conceded.

What is certain is that Mr Izetbegovic will have a hard sell should he decide to peddle the deal and it is easier to reject an idea and then have it accepted than to embrace a failure.

Like the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, Mr Izetbegovic has a diverse and fractious constituency, ranging from pragmatists worn down by the war, to victims of 'ethnic cleansing' who would have no home to return to under the new peace plan and who therefore wish to continue fighting.

Reports from Tuzla, by far Bosnia's largest city which still prides itself on its history of harmony between Serbs, Croats and Muslims, indicate that local leaders there are opposed to the deal, while politicians from the Bihac pocket, an area in the north-western corner of the country whose population is roughly equal to that of Sarajevo, are inclined to support it.

Most diplomats and observers, however, say the Bosnian government army is the real key to the fate of the plan. But indications are that military opinion is also somewhat divided. Starved of weapons and ammunition, some regional comanders are convinced that unless there is a peaceful solution, the Bosnian Serbs will overwhelm Muslim-led Bosnian government army.

Others, particularly those troops successfully fighting Croatian forces in central Bosnia, are fiercely opposed to any deal which divides the country. Nezir, the deputy commander of the 17th Brigade, based in Travnik, told journalists on Sunday: 'If the government decides to accept the plan there would be a military coup.'

The latest Geneva deal undoubtedly represents the end for the Muslim-led Bosnian government and its dream of a unitary multi-ethnic state. 'But what is the alternative?' is a common refrain heard in Bosnia and elsewhere. Mr Izetbegovic is not blind to what rejection means.

A diplomat in Geneva said: 'There are really no subtleties or secrets here. If the Muslims reject this plan nothing will change. It will only get worse and this time the fighting will rage without hope of a solution.'