Slow-burning fuse in Bosnia could detonate Balkan powderkeg

As time runs out for Western peace efforts, a new war looks inevitable Zagreb `We are trying to get the parties to realise that unless we make progress in the next few weeks, all hell will break loose'
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Just about the time when a plane carrying the Turkish President was due to arrive at Sarajevo yesterday, Bosnian Serb gunmen, with long memories of centuries of Ottoman rule in Bosnia, opened fire on the airport and started a short firefight with UN peace-keepers.

A few moments earlier, a Bosnian Serb anti-aircraft battery was "locked on" to a C-130 transport aircraft, one that could have easily been mistaken for that of President Sulyeman Demirel, except for the German markings.

Mr Demirel's visit to the Bosnian capital was cancelled hours before, precisely because the Serbs refused to guarantee his safe passage. Recent reports that Turkish planes may have been clandestinely flying in arms and supplies at US behest to the Serbs' enemies in the mainly-Muslim Bosnian government has almost certainly made Mr Demirel a tempting target for the Serbs.

Whether or not the Turks are responsible for the reported violations of both a UN arms embargo on former Yugoslavia and a UN imposed "no fly zone" is unclear.

What does seem clear from the new reports of secret arms shipments to the Bosnian government, as well as the Bosnian Serbs' apparent willingness to blow the president of a Nato member state out of the skies, is that the recent spate of international activity to bring peace to Bosnia is failing and that a new round of bloody fighting is in the offing.

While the guns have been mostly silent for two months in Bosnia, that has provided little comfort to the governments seeking to broker a settlement to end the three-year war.

"We are trying to focus the minds of the parties and get them to realise that unless we make progress in the next few weeks, all hell could break loose," a Western official said.

Both the Bosnian government and the Bosnian Serb authorities are preparing for fighting when the shaky four-month ceasefire expires at the end of April. If Croatia orders out UN peace-keepers when their mandate ends on 31 March, the stage may be set for a general conflict pitting Serbia and Serb rebels in Croatia and Bosnia against Croatia and Bosnia's Muslim- Croat federation.

The three diplomatic initiatives that were drawn up by the West and Russia appear to be getting nowhere. The first proposal, to divide Bosnia almost equally in half between the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serbs, was rejected last year by the Bosnian Serbs, who control about 70 per cent of the republic's territory.

The second initiative began in January after the former US president Jimmy Carter visited Bosnia and arranged the ceasefire. It treated the proposal to divide Bosnia as a "starting point" for negotiations. The intention was to test the Bosnian Serb leaders, to see how flexible they might be. US officials held discussions at the Bosnian Serb headquarters in Pale outside Sarajevo, but admitted the mission proved fruitless.

The third initiative, two weeks ago, offered Serbia a two-month suspension of sanctions if Belgrade would recognise Bosnia and Croatia and tighten the closure of its border with Bosnia.

But Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, rejected the plan. Mr Milosevic said sanctions must be fully lifted before consideration of other issues. To Western dismay, he won sympathy for his position from Russia's Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, exposing the fragility of Western-Russian unity on the conflict.

The West believes Mr Milosevic holds the key to an overall solution in Croatia and Bosnia. But this may underestimate the degree to which the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, his military commander, General Ratko Mladic, and the Croatian Serb leader, Milan Martic, operate independently. Ever since Mr Milosevic imposed a blockade on the Bosnian Serbs last year for refusing to accept the proposed 51-49 per cent division of Bosnia, Mr Karadzic has refused to bow to the Serbian President's will.

A letter that the Bosnian Serb assembly sent to Mr Milosevic two weeks ago indicates a split in Serbian ranks is not a hoax, to deceive the West.

"The truth is that the Drina [river between Bosnia and Serbia] is an iron curtain today, and that no one and nothing can penetrate it," the letter said, adding: "We have been put into a cage as if we were beasts and not part of the freedom-loving Serbian nation, which is bleeding and paying with lives for the defence of overall Serbian interests."

Mr Milosevic is balancing several factors at once as he struggles to map out Serbia's strategy - a desire to remain in power in Belgrade, anxiety not to provoke the West into maintaining sanctions, the need to heal the rift with the Bosnian Serbs and hopes of a settlement that will vindicate Serbian interests. The problem for the West is that whatever course Mr Milosevic takes, it is unlikely to satisfy Croatia or Bosnia.They are adamant that their territorial integrity must be preserved. With the various parties so far apart, it is hard to see how more fighting can be avoided.

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