Leaders confident the truce will hold

ANDREW GUMBEL

Rome

International peace negotiators, flush from the news of a US-brokered ceasefire in Bosnia, yesterday managed to convene the foreign ministers of Croatia, Bosnia and the rump state of Yugoslavia round the same negotiating table and said they were cautiously optimistic that hostilities would cease on or very shortly after the target date of next Tuesday.

Delegates from 12 countries - including the three directly interested parties, five EU member states, Russia, the United States, Canada and, for the first time, Japan - gathered in Rome for a meeting of the so-called Consultation Group on former Yugoslavia to discuss the nuts and bolts of the agreement.

All the non-combatants have pledged funds to reconstruct the country as an inducement to maintain the ceasefire once it is in place.

"This ceasefire is entirely different to all that preceded it, because none of the others had agreement at head of state level," US envoy Richard Holbrooke told a news conference. He nevertheless injected a note of heavy caution: "Let no-one think that peace is imminent or around the corner ... The task ahead of us is daunting."

One source close to the delegation dismissed such wariness as the inevitable consequence of too many disappointments in the past and said the mood was more optimistic than it had been in more than three years of fighting. "The heads of state have put their names to this, so now their prestige is on the line," the source said.

One factor in the negotiators' favour is the balance of territory, which according to Mr Holbrooke is roughly 50-50 between the Bosnian Serbs and the Croat-Muslim alliance. A peace plan approved by the three sides in June 1994 but never implemented envisages a 51-49 per cent carve-up.

A potential flashpoint is eastern Slavonia, the region on the Croat side of the Croat-Serbian border which saw heavy fighting in 1991 and remains a hotly contested territory because of its large Serb minority.

Mr Holbrooke warned that eastern Slavonia could "overshadow and undermine" the peace effort, although he noted that talks on the issue had made a good start this week and were due to resume on Monday.

The Belgrade Foreign Minister, Milan Milutinovic, was clearly uncomfortable on the issue, saying talks were only at "the beginning of the beginning", and urged all sides to separate eastern Slavonia from the rest of the negotiating process.

With the ceasefire imminent the UN's tasks around Sarajevo fall into three main categories: restoring the flow of gas and electricity to the city; securing a road to the eastern Bosnian enclave of Gorazde; and policing a ceasefire. The last depends on the first - the truce is to take effect only when Sarajevans are the recipients once more of heat, light and water.

First, engineers from the UN and aid agencies must clear thousands of mines placed around electrical plants and pylons, before repairing lines and other installations damaged in the war. One stretch of line, one mile long, is especially problematic as it has been sown with mines by all three armies: government, Serb and Croat.

Specialists are also upgrading or removing the many jerry-rigged gas pipelines, mostly rubber hoses connected by enterprising Sarajevans, to avert the risk of multiple explosions when the mains supply is turned back on.

Gas flows in via Serbia from Russia - which had threatened to withhold all supplies unless it received payment for war-time supplies - and should reach Sarajevo by Monday evening.

War damage has in the past hampered the flow of water, gas and electricity to the city, but the fundamental reason for the shortage of utilities has always been political: the rebel Serb leadership chose to turn off supplies. All that should now change. "The problems are more technical than political," William Eagleton, the UN envoy in charge of reconstruction, said yesterday.

Ensuring a safe route to Gorazde for civilians and UN traffic will also require the peace-keepers to clear mines and perhaps repair roads or bridges destroyed by Nato air raids. A first reconnaissance trip was planned for yesterday.

The UN has yet to finalise plans for ensuring the safety of those using the road, which will cross more than 100km of hostile, Serb-held territory, but an official in Sarajevo said travel along the route would be in convoys with well-armed military escorts.

"It is clearly a very problematic task," Chris Gunness, a UN spokesman in Zagrebk, said yesterday. He said the route was unlikely to open on Tuesday, when the ceasefire is due to take effect. But he added that utilities should be restored by the deadline of midnight on 10 October.

The UN headquarters in Sarajevo is considering how best to police the ceasefire once it takes effect, but a source said it was unlikely to deploy peace-keepers along the front line, where they might be at risk. Instead, it is likely to patrol from the air, using helicopters.

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