US turns screw on defiant Bosnian Serbs

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The Independent Online
In an attempt to shore up Bosnia's rocky Muslim-Croat federation, Washington has reverted to its policy of isolating the Bosnian Serbs, scuppering the peace process launched by the former US president Jimmy Carter.

"Pale [the Bosnian Serb capital] had its chance to accept the Contact Group plan as a starting point for negotiations. They turned us down and now we have closed down [discussions] with Pale," Richard Holbrooke, the US Assistant Secretary of State, said yesterday.

"There's no point in shuttling up the hill from Sarajevo to Pale to listen to the kind of crap which was dished out by [Bosnian Serb leader] Karadzic."

Frustration at the lack of progress since the ceasefire brokered in December by Mr Carter seems to have convinced the US to return to an earlier policy of isolating the Bosnian Serbs, in the hope of forcing an agreement. There are few signs that the policy will be successful, although the dangers of failure may be greater now.

Since Mr Carter's visit to Bosnia and the softening of the "take-it-or-leave-it" Contact Group peace plan, the Serbs have hardened their opposition to it, leaving diplomatic efforts in tatters.

France, a member of the five-nation group, has proposed an international conference to resolve conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, attended by President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. Mr Holbrooke said Radovan Karadzic would not be invited unless he accepted the plan.

"What they're trying to do once more is to use the planned summit as a vehicle to isolate Karadzic," said Patrick Glynn, a UN foreign policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"They're trying to work a deal with all the other players and edge Karadzic out."

The crucial player, as always, is Mr Milosevic. If he would agree to recognise Bosnia or Croatia, or both, in exchange for an end to the economic embargo on rump Yugoslavia, rebel Serbs would be forced to deal. But, despite Croatia's official optimism about an exchange of ambassadors soon, there is no evidence that Mr Milosevic is ready to concede.

"The missing element is some real element of coercion," Mr Glynn said. "[Washington and the rest of the Contact Group] neither have a very good stick, nor a very good carrot."

International attitudes have shifted. Moscow has edged away from Belgrade and Pale, holding high-level talks with the Bosnian government. The battlefields in Bosnia are mostly quiet. But the Muslim-Croat federation, a fragile marriage of convenience, is foundering, as Bosnian Croats flirt with the idea of a new alliance with Bosnian Serbs (encouraged, perhaps, by the recent furtive visits to Pale by senior US diplomats).

Mr Karadzic and his counterparts in Serb-held Croatia, who face the prospect of a UN withdrawal next month and a renewal of war with Croatia, remain defiant. The Paris summit "cannot decide anything on behalf of the `Bosnian Serb Republic'," Mr Karadzic was quoted as saying. He rubbished as "hogwash" the Contact Group's proposal of confederation with Serbia. "We want our sovereignty and when we get it, then we will decide what we are going to do with it."

Faced with intransigence, the world has two options, a UN analyst said: "Either they're going to fight the Serbs or they're going to give in to them." Or, they are going to hold another conference, which has as much chance of bringing peace as the 1992 London Conference.

The irony, as Mr Holbrooke said, is that: "Things have not been as peaceful in the Balkans in years as they are today. And yet, we are one spark away from a much wider war and that spark could come from either Croatia or Bosnia."