Serbia's leaders clash head-on

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MILAN PANIC, the Prime Minister of the rump Yugoslavia, seemed to be fighting for his political life yesterday. He faces a parliamentary vote of no confidence in Belgrade, scheduled for Friday, because of his too dovish handling of the peace talks in London last week.

Appearing on Belgrade television last night, Mr Panic reiterated that Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic must resign if he refuses to keep promises on ending the war in Bosnia. 'Yugoslav citizens have two choices,' he said. 'One is peace, . . . and the other is tragedy.' He rejected accusations from his hardline Serbian opponents that he had sold out Serbia at the talks.

Paradoxically, it was Mr Panic who helped to persuade the West that Belgrade's intentions were now honest, and thus helped to take some of the heat off Mr Milosevic.

Senior officials in Belgrade insisted yesterday that the heat must be taken off the Belgrade regime to help Mr Panic to survive: 'Unless the West helps Panic, he's lost. And, if Panic does go down, there won't be anybody to co-operate with - just Milosevic.'

All of which may be true. But it should not be forgotten that Belgrade officials have an interest in emphasising the fragility of Mr Panic's position. If concern for Mr Panic's political health leads to an easing of pressure on Belgrade, then that is beneficial to Mr Milosevic, too.

The man who appointed Mr Panic is Dobrica Cosic, President of the rump - and, as yet, unrecognised - Yugoslavia. But, in the past, Mr Cosic has been one of Mr Milosevic's closest allies. It is unclear if he has really changed so much, so fast.

Initially, it seemed that Mr Panic played no role at all except to neutralise the criticism directed against Mr Milosevic. Now, it is clear that his conflicts with the Serbian leader are real enough.

But even the most intransigeant hardliners may realise that getting rid of Mr Panic will only further damage Serbia's world standing.