Muslims fear allies' plan will destroy Bosnia: Western initiative on 'safe havens' condemned as a move away from multinational state towards partition serving Serbs and Croats

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The Independent Online
BOSNIA'S Muslims fear that the latest international peace plan will lead to the death of their nation by economic and military strangulation. The Western powers argue that they still support a multinational Bosnian state within its pre-war borders, but Muslim leaders suspect that the creation of 'safe havens' for their threatened people will serve only to accelerate the de facto partition of Bosnia between the Serbs and Croats.

The Bosnian government issued a statement on Saturday denouncing 'the impermissible procrastination and complete ineffectiveness of the international community'. It demanded the lifting of an arms embargo on Muslim-led forces and international military action on its behalf. The United States at first favoured arming the Muslims, but it put the idea to one side after its Western European allies and Russia expressed objections.

The Muslims feel badly let down because Western countries recognised Bosnia-Herzegovina as an independent state in April 1992. The war broke out that month after Muslims and Croats voted for independence in a referendum boycotted by Serbs. According to the Bosnian government, the war has left 138,000 people dead or missing, and more than 2 million people are refugees.

The Muslims made up 44 per cent of Bosnia's pre-war population of 4.4 million, the Serbs 32 per cent and the Croats 17 per cent. However, the Serbs now control almost 70 per cent of the republic, and the Croats 20 per cent. The Muslims have been squeezed into pockets of territory that are economically ruined and are full of refugees expelled from their homes by Serbian or Croatian forces.

The Serbs have set up a state in northern and eastern Bosnia called the Republic of Srpska, while the Croats have set up a state in the south- west called Herzeg-Bosnia.

Besim Spahic, the mayor of the Muslim-held town of Zenica in central Bosnia, said: 'The main goal was to destroy the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina and show the world the three communities could not live together. The hindrance was the Muslims, who had to be either killed or expelled to enclaves.'

Some Muslims compare their fate to that of America's Indians, confined to reservations by their conquerors. By contrast, the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, welcomed the 'safe havens' plan put forward in Washington on Saturday by the foreign ministers of the United States, Russia, France, Britain and Spain.

'I do feel we are approaching a more just solution, to form three constituent states of Bosnia-Herzegovina,' Mr Karadzic said.

Many Bosnian Serbs and Croats do not bother to disguise the fact that their ultimate aim is to unite the areas under their control with Serbia and Croatia respectively. Serbian and Croatian officials have been holding secret talks on a territorial and political settlement for Bosnia and those parts of Croatia that fell to the Serbs in 1991.

United Nations peace-keepers went into Serb-held Croatia in early 1992 under a ceasefire brokered by Cyrus Vance, the former US Secretary of State. However, the Croats say the truce has served to consolidate the Serbs' grip on their conquests. Critics of the Bosnian 'safe havens' plan argue that it will have the same effect, with the Serbian and Croatian seizures of land accepted in fact, if not in law. Supporters of the plan contend that it will at least save Muslim lives.

In their statement, the Western and Russian foreign ministers paid lip service to the Vance-Owen plan under which Bosnia would remain a single state but would be divided into 10 autonomous provinces, largely on ethnic lines. 'To the extent that the parties decide to implement promptly mutually agreed provisions of the Vance-Owen plan, this is to be encouraged,' they said.

Since the Bosnian Serbs have rejected the plan, and the Muslims signed it with considerable reluctance, this suggests that the Western powers are quietly burying Vance- Owen, at least in its present form. It may also be significant that the foreign ministers' statement did not contain an explicit commitment to preserving Bosnia as a united state within its pre-war borders.

In the past year, some Western politicians and diplomats have argued privately that the only solution is to let the Serbs and Croats redraw Bosnia's borders. That line of thought can be detected in the latest plan. The danger is that, across Eastern Europe, the West's policy shift may be interpreted as a licence to change other borders and ethnic mixtures by force.

Leading article, page 15