West fears new Balkan wars

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The Independent Online
British, French and German officials will fly to Belgrade tomorrow in a forlorn attempt to convince President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia to accept an international plan designed to head off the spectre of renewed war across former Yugoslavia.

But Western officials accept time is running out for the international effort in the Balkans. The five-nation "Contact group", comprising three European countries, the US and Russia, faces a tough Serbian bargaining position that is on the verge of splitting Moscow from its Western partners and prolonging the Bosnian war.

The clock is ticking for a deadline of 31 March, when United Nations peace-keepers must begin a withdrawal from Croatia at the behest of President Franjo Tudjman, a move that heralds new hostilities between Croats and Serbs.

In a clear sign of the evolution in allied planning, the British commander of UN forces in Bosnia, Lieutenant-General Rupert Smith, was present yesterday at exercises in Germany to simulate a pull-out of the 22,000 UN peace- keepers. The wargames were overseen by Nato's supreme commander, General George Joulwan, who would oversee the operation to extract the soldiers from combat zones.

"People are not yet aware that we are just weeks away from a potentially disastrous set of developments," said a senior official close to the Belgrade negotiations.

The visitors will attempt to win over Mr Milosevic to a three-point deal in exchange for suspending UN sanctions. The Contact Group wants Serbia to agree to its 51:49 per cent peace plan for Bosnia, seal its border with Bosnia to stop supplies entering and agree torecognise Bosnia and Croatia.

But the divisions in the group were made clear last weekend by the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, grandly entertained by Mr Milosevic at Tito's old hunting lodge in northern Serbia. Mr Kozyrev said the Contact Group was "reacting inappropriately" to Serbia's demand that sanctions should be lifted altogether.

It was announced also that Russia will begin to supply Serbia with natural gas to ease its energy shortage.

The closer Russia gets to Serbia, the greater the divide in the Contact Group between it and the US, with the British, French and Germans straddling the gap.

Although there is fighting around Bihac, most Bosnian battlefronts remain under a ceasefire, due to expire on 1 May. But without political progress, the US Congress may supply arms to the Muslim-led government. "Bob Dole is giving peace a chance," one Western official said, referring to the US Senate Republican leader.

Britain and its allies are trying to persuade Croatia to reverse its decision that the peacekeepers must go. The Foreign Office Minister, Douglas Hogg, yesterday told Croatia's ambassador to London Britain is concern a pull-out could mean war.

Croatia says that the presence of the UN has entrenched Serbian gains from the 1991 war. Mr Tudjman, under nationalist pressure, believes he can win back part of the one-third of Croatian territory held by Serbs. But Western military experts are privately warning the Croats not to expect a limited conflict. They point to the arsenal of missiles in Serbian hands and predict new hostilities would include the bombardment of Croatian cities. Facing one deadline on 31 March and another on 1 May, few Western diplomats are in an optimistic mood.