US urges France not to quit Bosnia

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PRESIDENT Bill Clinton appealed to France not to withdraw its 6,800 troops from the United Nations peace-keeping force in former Yugoslavia. Speaking in a radio interview broadcast in France yesterday, he said he hoped that France, which provides the largest UN contingent in the region, would keep its soldiers there 'until we have exhausted all possibilities of a settlement'.

Both France and Britain - the second-largest contributor of UN forces in former Yugoslavia - have strongly suggested they will scale down their operations this year if no progress is made towards peace in Bosnia. The prospect of a French and British withdrawal is looming larger because the Bosnian Muslims and their Croat allies seem as far away as ever from making peace with their Serbian enemies.

'I understand the French not wanting to stay solely to be in the middle of two shooting sides,' said Mr Clinton, who arrived in Italy yesterday on a tour of Europe. 'I think there is a chance that both sides will recognise they can fight well into the next century and still not resolve this matter on the battlefield.'

Serbian and Muslim-Croat delegations are scheduled to open talks in Geneva today that UN officials had originally hoped would produce agreement on a ceasefire lasting four months. However, those hopes have faded in the last week, and the UN would regard it as something of an achievement if both sides show up for the talks.

While the Bosnian Serb civilian leader, Radovan Karadzic, and his military commander, General Ratko Mladic, have said they will travel to Geneva, Muslim leaders have threatened not to attend. They say their participation will depend on whether Serbian forces withdraw from a two-mile exclusion zone around the centre of the eastern Muslim town of Gorazde.

The UN proclaimed the exclusion zone last month after a Serbian offensive almost caused the total collapse of Gorazde's defences. About 150 Serbian troops, dressed as policemen, remain in the area, and Serbian authorities contend that they must stay there to maintain order and protect Serbian refugees who have moved back after being driven from their homes in 1992.

Even if Muslim leaders go to Geneva, they hold out little hope of agreement on a ceasefire, let alone a broader settlement. 'They (the Serbs) just want to buy time, to gain status quo on land they have taken by genocide and killing,' the Bosnian Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, said on Tuesday.

He said a four-month ceasefire would give the Serbs a chance to freeze their territorial gains and therefore the Bosnian government preferred a truce lasting from four to six weeks. He also said a ceasefire should be linked to progress on a permanent settlement.

The Muslims and Croats, who recently ended a war between themselves and formed a federation in Bosnia, are bitter because they suspect Western countries and Russia are trying to force them into a territorial deal favourable to the Serbs. The Western- Russian proposal is that the Muslim-Croat federation takes 51 per cent of Bosnia and the Serbs have 49 per cent. The Muslims and Croats are holding out for 58 per cent of the republic, but say they could accept minor adjustments. However, the Bosnian Serbs have shown little interest in the international proposal and none at all in the Muslim-Croat initiative. One of their main demands is that progress in negotiations should be linked to a lifting of UN economic sanctions on Serbia.

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