Serbs to reconsider Vance-Owen plan: In unexpected climbdown, Bosnian Serbs call parliamentary meeting to discuss peace proposal and agree to attend all-faction summit in Athens

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BOSNIAN Serbs yesterday appeared ready to eat their words, swallow their pride and accept the same international peace plan they had rejected just five days ago. After a meeting in Belgrade with Serbia's power-broker and President, Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian Serb leaders announced that their parliament would meet again on Wednesday to reconsider the Vance-Owen plan.

The official Tanjug news agency said that Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, and Momcilo Krajisnik, the speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament, had accepted Mr Milosevic's suggestion to reconvene assembly to 'assess in detail all aspects of the proposed plan, including new information'.

Television reports gave the event the atmosphere of a political puppet show and there were few doubts that the master pulling the strings was President Milosevic.

Since Boris Yeltsin's referendum victory in Russia on Sunday dashed Serbian hopes for a change in Moscow's support for international measures punishing Yugoslavia for its role in the Bosnian war, Mr Milosevic has been beating a tactical retreat. Analysts believe the President is convinced that most Serbian territorial ambitions in Bosnia have already been achieved and that now is the time for political consolidation, rather than for further military expansion that could provoke Western intervention.

When the Bosnian Serb parliament rejected the Vance-Owen plan early on Monday it snubbed not only the world community but also Mr Milosevic, who had urged his political understudies in Bosnia to sign the deal. The rejection triggered a new regime of harsh sanctions against Yugolsavia and condemned Mr Milosevic to futher international isolation.

Mr Milosevic refused to yield to the challenge to his authority and fought back, orchestrating public dissatisfaction with an intense media campaign that attacked Bosnian Serbs for 'subjecting the entire Serbian nation to unnecessary hardships'. For the past three days Serbs of almost all political persuasions have been paraded on the state-controlled news shows on Channel 1 to vent their anger over the Bosnian Serb decision.

Only members of the Serbian Radical Party led by the ultra-hardliner Vojislav Seselj have defended the rejection as an necessary step in the struggle for a 'Greater Serbia'. Their views have not been given air-time.

Mr Milosevic's sudden departure from his previous tepid reception of the Vance-Owen plan was crystallised in a letter he sent to Bijeljina demanding that Bosnian Serbs accept the plan. The letter was sent too late to have any impact on the vote, and was seen by many analysts and diplomats as nothing more than a crude manoeuvre to remove Mr Milosevic's fingerprints from the rejection and thus avoid new sanctions. But after yesterday's decision to reconvene the Bosnian Serb assembly, many sceptics were reassessing their position.

'There does appear to be some sincere attempt to get the Bosnian Serbs to sign,' a previously sceptical Western diplomat said yesterday. However, he cautioned against raised expectations in Belgrade that the sanctions imposed on Tuesday would be lifted immediately should the Bosnian Serbs accept the plan.

'It is not going to be that easy. Now a signature might not be enough. The international community might want to see steps taken towards the implementation of the plan before relaxing the pressure.'

According to well-connected political sources, Mr Milosevic's hope is to buy time and relieve some of the international pressure on Yugoslavia. Should the West spurn him, however, it might play into the hands of more radical rivals such as Mr Seselj, who maintains there is an international conspiracy against the Serbs and nothing less than a total Serbian surrender will appease those behind it.

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