Plot grows to oust Bosnia leader: Izetbegovic refuses to attend Geneva talks as rival says he is ready to end war and carve up republic

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THE PLOT to get rid of the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, gained momentum yesterday after the col lective presidency voted to attend Bosnian partition talks in Geneva without him.

As Mr Izetbegovic and his only ally on the presidency, Ejup Ganic, returned to Sarajevo to rally their forces, the stage looked set for a dangerous confrontation between two factions for control of the shattered remnants of Muslim-held Bosnia.

In the central Bosnian Muslim stronghold of Zenica yesterday at least nine people were killed, including three children, when artillery shells fell next to a block of flats. British United Nations peace-keepers, based at nearby Vitez, were returning from a routine patrol when they were diverted to the scene of the carnage.

The shells were apparently fired from Serb-held positions, British television journalists reported. A group of people playing chess at the end of a hot summer day were slaughtered.

The Bosnia presidency battle pits Izetbegovic loyalists against supporters of his bitter rival and possible successor, Fikret Abdic. Mr Izetbegovic favours carrying on the war to preserve a united Bosnia. Mr Abdic now controls the presidency and wants to end the war at almost any price. He is ready to discuss the new Serb-Croat plan to split Bosnia into three states, which Lord Owen also supports.

Mr Izetbegovic refused to attend talks with Bosnian Croats and Serbs and the international peace mediators, Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg, on splitting Bosnia into three ethnic mini-states.

After the Bosnian presidency in Zagreb voted to attend carve-up talks in Geneva, Mr Abdic denied plotting to overthrow Mr Izetbegovic. 'I do not want the crucial issue to be Mr Izetbegovic's replacement, the central issue is peace in Bosnia,' he said. He said he would not lead the delegation to Geneva. The role goes to a little- known Croat, Franjo Boras. But behind the scenes Mr Abdic, not Mr Boras, is in control of the presidency, and is ready to defy the President.

Mr Abdic revealed that Lord Owen sent all the members of the presidency invitations to attend the Geneva talks. It suggests Lord Owen is actively involved in the plot to oust the intransigent Mr Izetbegovic in favour of the flexible Mr Abdic, in order to win all-round acceptance for the plan to carve up Bosnia.

Lord Owen said last week he was tired of Mr Izetbegovic rejecting his peace plans on behalf of the Bosnian state and called for more collective decision-making. 'We have to stop this nonsense of decisions being taken by the Bosnian government that are not discussed by the government,' he said. He threatened to take away Mr Izetbegovic's legitimacy as President. 'We could do what Karadzic and Boban do (the Bosnian Serb and Croatian leaders), do, which is to refer to him as just the Muslim side.'

When it became clear that Mr Izetbegovic was the last serious obstacle to the plan to divide Bosnia, Lord Owen helped revive the almost forgotten institution of the presidency, to pull the rug from under Mr Izetbegovic's feet. Although Mr Izetbegovic has rejected the Serb-Croat plan to partition Bosnia in advance, Lord Owen may now decide to accept the signature of the presidency.

Mr Abdic was always a businessman first, a Muslim second. Lukewarm about the whole project to create an independent Bosnia, he remained tight-lipped about the war until last week when he publicly attacked Mr Izetbegovic. 'Alija Izetbegovic's policy is fatal for the Muslim people,' he said on Bihac radio. 'I am against his call for a continuation of the war and for the introduction of a military dictatorship.'

The biggest problem for the plotters is that Mr Izetbegovic still controls Sarajevo, and it will be extremely difficult to turf him out. Mr Abdic is paramount chief of his native Bihac, but that is a long way from Sarajevo.

Many Muslims back Mr Izetbegovic and want to carry on the armed struggle, in the hope the international arms embargo on Bosnia will fall apart even if it is not officially lifted. They see Mr Abdic as a traitor and a stooge of Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia's Franjo Tudjman.