Milosevic weakened as Serb assembly splits: US responds to European concern over armed intervention

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WHEN THE dust settled at the stormy first pan-Serbian assembly yesterday, President Slobodan Milosevic emerged from the ruins of the meeting with what he wanted: an endorsement for the Vance-Owen peace plan. It was, however, a Pyrrhic victory that divided the political base of Serbian leaders, left Mr Milosevic severely weakened and and spelt trouble for the future of 'Serbdom'.

'We support the peace plan for Bosnia as the only solution offered by the international community for the cessation of hostilities,' said the declaration adopted by a half-empty hall in Belgrade.

Mr Milosevic had invited 637 representatives from Serbia and Montenegro, together with Serbian leaders from two breakaway Yugoslav republics, to agree to the Vance-Owen plan. The idea was to let representatives of 'all' Serbs decide the future instead of leaving it to a referendum called by the Bosnian Serb parliament for this weekend.

But only 336 members from four parliaments showed up. The Bosnian Serbs, along with some opposition parties, angered by what they saw as Mr Milosevic's cynical use of their support, boycotted the meeting. The low turn-out was the first blow to Mr Milosevic and it paved the way for the wrangle with Serbian hardliners and the champions of no-compromise that reduced the assembly to a charade.

The offensive was led by Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the second most powerful party in Serbia, the Serbian Radical Party. A hulking figure in shirtsleeves, his considerable paunch thrust forward, he took the floor immediately after the session opened to challenge the right of the meeting to do more than discuss issues, on the grounds that there was no quorum from any of the parliaments in attendance. He then denounced a procedural rule meant to limit debate during the session. 'This assembly is crippled and cannot make any decision at all,' he declared.

Mr Milosevic, normally stiff and stone-faced during meetings, was drumming on the table nervously during Mr Seselj's intervention. The procedural dispute was a cover for deeper differences between Mr Seselj, who has been encouraging the recalcitrance of the Bosnian Serbs, and Mr Milosevic who wants to sue for peace.

For the last three weeks Mr Milosevic has been playing with a dangerous mixture of Serbian nationalism and Serbian rivalries in the belief he could harness the reaction of those contradictions to force peace on Bosnia and remain the master of Balkan politics. Yesterday that experiment in political alchemy exploded.

Delegates started criticising other parliaments and their members. 'How can you question the legitimacy of my parliament when we never question the legitimacy of your states in Bosnia,' said one delegate from Montenegro, which together with Serbia makes up the rump Yugoslavia.

'This parliament does not have the right to impose where Serbs in Bosnia will live,' a Radical Party member told the gathering. Even Zeljko Raznjatovic, a Serbian member of parliament better known as the paramilitary leader and alleged war criminal Arkan, joined the fray: 'I beg you to stop insulting each other. Stop debating who is a traitor and who is not.'

The assembly had the charged atmosphere of civil conflict. It was Balkan political drama at its best. The pupil, Mr Seselj, was taking on his mentor and the master of political escapes, Mr Milosevic.

When Mr Seselj lost the vote to open debate to deputies instead of just their leaders, he led a walk-out of 139 delegates. The walk-out left a huge empty space in the meeting hall and Mr Milosevic with only about a third of the total members he had invited to the assembly - hardly the solid front he hoped to show the world and the Bosnian Serbs, but still enough to pull off the endorsement.

More importantly the walk-out formalised a split between Mr Milosevic and Mr Seselj that could paralyse the Yugoslav government.

(Photograph omitted)