Fear of future wars hangs over treaty

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Europe's most violent conflict since the Second World War will be officially declared at an end today when a peace treaty for Bosnia- Herzegovina is signed at the Elysee Palace. In an effort to consolidate the settlement, foreign ministers of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia met outside Paris yesterday to discuss mutual diplomatic recognition.

Such a step would in theory increase chances of a lasting peace, as it would indicate that Serbia and Croatia had abandoned the idea of carving up Bosnia between them. However, as delegations from Europe, North America and the Islamic world arrived, the mood was one less of self-congratulation than of misgivings.

The settlements, reached after three weeks of US-brokered talks last month in Dayton, Ohio, represent a compromise between the ambitions of Bosnia's Muslim-led government, the Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian Serbs. In accordance with the government's wishes and those of the world at large, the settlement preserves Bosnia as an independent state in its pre-war frontiers but it weakens the application of this principle by officially dividing the country into a Muslim-Croat federation and a Bosnian Serb republic.

To make a reality of the agreement, a 60,000-strong Nato-led force, including troops from Russia and about 10 other non-Nato countries, will be deployed in Bosnia, probably starting on Monday. Britain is contributing 13,000 troops, the United States 20,000 and France about 10,000.

Nato governments say their forces will remain in Bosnia no longer than a year, during which time the aim is to forge a comprehensive arms-control regime for the former Yugoslavia, put together an economic-reconstruction programme, help two million refugees return home and arrange free elections in Bosnia.

Presidents Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia will sign the treaty knowing that several of the most explosive disputes dividing them since 1991, when the Yugoslav wars broke out, remain unsettled. For Mr Milosevic, a particularly difficult issue is eastern Slavonia, an enclave of Croatia bordering Serbia which was seized by Serb rebels, backed by the Belgrade-led Yugoslav army, in 1991.

Under a deal done on the sidelines of the Dayton accord, Croatia is to regain control of eastern Slavonia in a maximum of two years. But it remains in question whether the Croatian government is willing to grant genuine autonomy to the Serbs of the region, or whether it is biding its time until it can expel the Serbs by force, as it did last May and August to the Serb communities of western Slavonia and the Knin Krajina. The Serbs of eastern Slavonia are showing every sign of resisting the return of Croat and other non-Serb refugees driven out since 1991. Their objective seems to be the maintenance of the artificial Serb majority created in the region over the past four years, so that eastern Slavonia remains under de facto Serb control with the closest possible ties to Serbia proper. In Bosnia, a main point of disagreement is the Brcko corridor, connecting Bosnian Serb possessions in northern and eastern Bosnia. The Bosnian Serbs want it widened to enhance their security but Croats in the area have protested in recent weeks because they stand to lose land in the nearby historically Croat region of Posavina. The dispute could not be resolved in Dayton and is going to international arbitration. Whatever the judgment, it is likely to implant a desire for revenge in one camp or the other.

Uncertainty also surrounds the future of Sarajevo, where several districts in Bosnian Serb hands are to be handed over to the Muslim-Croat federation. If the settlement is to uphold the principle of mutual national tolerance rather than countenance the enforced separation of each Bosnian nationality from the other two, it is vital that Serbs in the rebel sector of Sarajevo should not abandon their homes for the 49 per cent of Bosnia allocated to the Bosnian Serb Republic. The difficulty in restoring even a modicum of trust has been demonstrated in the Muslim-Croat federation, where the southern city of Mostar remains divided into two sectors two years after Muslims and Croats stopped fighting. Many Muslims are unconvinced Croats in western Herzegovina have given up hope of uniting their land with Croatia. It it equally clear that Bosnian Serb leaders view the accord as temporary, to be replaced one day by unification of all Serb lands.Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic may never stand trial in a UN court for alleged war crimes but even if they stepped down, their replacements are more likely to seek closer relations with Serbia than to rebuild Bosnia in co-operation with the Muslims and Croats.