Serbs keep answer to peace plan a secret

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The Independent Online
THE Bosnian Serb assembly in Pale yesterday said it had reached a decision on the latest peace plan, but declined to announce it before the next meeting of the international contact group on Bosnia in Geneva.

Miroslav Toholj, the Bosnian Serb Information Minister, held up a pink envelope, and said: 'The Bosnian Serb parliament . . . has adopted a decision which is in this envelope and which will be submitted to the contact group. I am afraid I cannot tell you any more.'

The US National Security Adviser, Tony Lake, however, warned the Serbs that they would suffer 'consequences', including the possible lifting of the United Nations arms embargo against the Muslims, if they attached conditions to their acceptance. If the Serbs' response is 'no', 'then the Bosnian Serbs should understand that the pressures at the Security Council for a multilateral lifting of the arms embargo would be irresistible,' Mr Lake said.

Bosnian Serb leaders were expected to meet President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia last night on their way to Geneva, prompting speculation that the pink envelope was empty, awaiting a final response after consultations with Belgrade. Mr Milosevic, who is keen to see the lifting of sanctions on Serbia, has supported the international plan in public.

Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, had predicted carnage if the assembly voted 'yes'. After eight hours of debate he was more conciliatory. 'I hope we will accept it in some way,' he said. Nikola Koljevic, his vice-president said: 'They would like to accept but not use the word 'accept' '.

An expanded role for Nato, as suggested by William Perry, the US Defense Secretary, would almost certainly mean the end of the United Nations Protection Force (Unprofor) in Bosnia. 'If Nato calls the shots when it comes to dropping bombs, Unprofor will pull out,' a source said. 'It would be virtual suicide for the UN to continue with its present duties.'

He said the UN and Nato only discussed contingency plans for the rejection of the plan last Saturday, which suggests that there are no serious preparations to carry out the threats announced by contact group if the plan is rejected.

Closing the loopholes through which Belgrade has busted sanctions might be easier. But it might require compensation for Serbia's neighbours. Lifting the arms embargo would trigger a UN withdrawal from Bosnia, and probably from Croatia. This would leave the Bosnian government forces vulnerable to a Serbian attack during the months it took them to obtain arms. Failure to act in the face of Serbian rejection would, however, damage what remains of the international community's credibility. Many expect the Serbs to reply 'yes, but . . .' and the contact group to accept it.

'I'm very leery of what the contact group has been proposing. I don't think it works,' a diplomatic source said. 'The Serbs will go along with it for a while, there'll be weeks of fruitless negotiations and by autumn the Serbs will say 'We don't want to play this game any more,' and we'll revert to war.'

But this time, the British and French, who provide the backbone of the UN contingent in Bosnia, may pull their troops out. In this case, civilians on both sides can expect a long and bloody winter.

According to Tanjug, the Belgrade news agency, the Serbs have six objections to the plan. They include a demand for sovereignty and a seat at the UN. These conditions fly in the face of the contact group's proposal, which defines Bosnia as a single state retaining its present international borders.

The contact group - Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - has said anything but an explicit 'Yes' will be regarded as a 'No'. However, many observers expect London, Paris and Moscow to leap at any hint of a positive response from the Serbs.