Sarajevo at centre of Bosnia peace talks: EU ministers persuade factions to guarantee delivery of aid

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The Independent Online
TALKS to end the war in Bosnia resumed last night for the first time in more than two months, after foreign ministers of the European Union, meeting in Geneva, urged Serb, Croat and Muslim leaders to accept a new peace plan.

The mediators Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg immediately began discussions with President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, who is seeking the removal of sanctions imposed on his country. The meeting was expected to focus on the future of Sarajevo, with further talks today.

Under the European plan, United Nations sanctions could be suspended in return for the withdrawal of Bosnian Serb forces from territory claimed by the Muslim leadership in Sarajevo. The last round of negotiations collapsed in September when the Muslims demanded more land than the Serbs were ready to concede.

The British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, said he felt the pressure on President Milosevic was beginning to tell. 'He made a rather combative speech in which he denounced sanctions, providing as he did so evidence of their quite powerful effect,' he said.

Mr Hurd repeated that the humanitarian effort could not continue for ever, evidently seeking to impress upon the Muslim-led government that it too was under a timetable to settle. He maintained, however, that the ministers were not pressing the Bosnian government to accede unwillingly to a quick solution.

President Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim, was said to have responded in conciliatory fashion to the European proposals. He has also dropped a demand that the future republics within Bosnia should be completely demilitarised. But he is understood to be seeking a guarantee by Nato for five years of the borders of the Muslim republic.

The 12 EU foreign ministers had assembled to persuade the warring factions to guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid and to establish a new basis for negotiation. The United States and Russia sent special envoys. Agreement by the US would be needed to suspend sanctions and it is by no means clear that this is yet guaranteed.

The ministers were determined to achieve at least a symbolic measure of success. A long day of talks produced an agreed document appearing to satisfy the demand to permit the free flow of aid. But it lacked the signature of the senior Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic, who did not attend.

The mood among the mediating team is far from optimistic. Some diplomats believe the harsh winter already enveloping Bosnia is likely to lead the Serbs to consolidate their gains and the Muslims to prepare a spring offensive. Asked last night if it was likely to be a long haul, Lord Owen replied: 'Who knows?'