UK officials 'convert' US on Bosnia plan

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BRITISH diplomats yesterday congratulated themselves on their success in persuading President Bill Clinton to back their non-interventionist approach on Bosnia, as Mr Clinton's new envoy to the Owen-Vance peace effort got to work straight away by announcing he would go to Moscow today to discuss the Bosnia peace plan.

Officials in London said that not only had the US genuinely joined the EC-UN process sponsored by Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance, abandoned proposals to bomb Serbian targets and lift the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims, backed sanctions, and emphasised the humanitarian effort; yesterday, a senior US official had privately assured the British that Washington would not seek enforcement of the no-fly zone over Bosnia in advance of an overall peace settlement.

Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, had indicated the day before that he would make a fresh effort to push through a UN resolution on enforcement, which Britain has resisted on the grounds that it would endanger the relief effort and UN troops on the ground.

'We've been working very, very hard on this since before Clinton took office, on ambassadorial level, secretary of state level and prime ministerial level,' said one British official of the overall change in Mr Clinton's policy. He said it was ironic 'to hear Warren Christopher saying things that we were saying already a year and a half ago . . . I hope we can take them along that learning curve quite quickly.'

The British were pleasantly surprised at the extent to which Mr Clinton had changed his policy since the election campaign, when he hinted at a more interventionist US approach, and hoped this would not open him up to charges of inconsistency. 'He's discarded quite a lot of heavy campaign baggage,' said one British official. 'It's an evolution' - diplomatic speak for a change of policy tantamount to a U-turn.

British diplomats were full of praise for Reginald Bartholomew, who is leaving his post as ambassador to Nato to join the Vance-Owen team and who is due to discuss the peace process with President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow today. He was described as 'excellent', 'somebody we can do business with' and, with the sole exception of Britain's own ambassador to the alliance, 'the live wire at Nato'.

British officials say that, unlike the Americans, they have kept in close touch with the peace negotiations through the active Lord Owen, the EC envoy, who briefs the Foreign Office personally every 48 hours. Mr Vance, the UN envoy and a former US secretary of state, is said to be far less assiduous in briefing the UN, let alone the US administration. Mr Bartholomew's participation will now ensure that the Americans stay on board, British diplomats say.

The US hopes the Russians will use their traditional ties with the Serbs to exert pressure on them to accept a negotiated settlement. But British officials emphasised that what had been missing from the Vance-Owen process was US participation in talking round the Muslims, whom Britain says were extending the conflict in the hope that the US would intervene to make it worth their while.

'The great advantage in having the Americans on board is that they have by far the most influence with the one party who thought it was in their interests to prolong the conflict because they thought they could get more,' a British official said.

Mr Bartholomew will work on suggestions for changes to the map proposed by Lord Owen and Mr Vance, dividing Bosnia into 10 ethnically based provinces, in order to safeguard the Muslims' interests while persuading them not to hold out against a settlement.

The US participation was cautiously welcomed by the Muslims, Serbs and Croats. But on the battlefield, fighting raged unabated as Muslim forces in Sarajevo launched a big new offensive. Four French soldiers were injured in the crossfire as they were leaving the airport. A UN spokesman said the heavy artillery attack, aimed at the Serbian stronghold in the suburb of Ilidza, had prompted Serbian forces to move tanks into the area.

UN sources said they believed the offensive was related to the Owen-Vance proposal to divide Sarajevo along ethnic lines, which has been heavily criticised by the Muslims.

UN troops at the airport, where planes bearing humanitarian aid land, had been put on 'alert state red' confining them to their protected shelters. All UN activities at the airport were supended. An American freelance photographer working for Reuters news agency was shot in the foot by a sniper as he drove west on the airport road.