Leaders to talk peace amid weapons of war

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It does not quite have the class of Camp David. But as a site for the Bosnian peace talks the Wright-Patterson Air Force base, in western Ohio, is perhaps even more suitable - bristling with the instruments of US air power which, operating under Nato guise, did as much as anything to bring the reluctant participants to the bargaining table in the first place.

In normal times, Wright-Patterson is a sprawling facility home to servicemen and their families, 23,000 in all. It is best known for its links with the Wright brothers, the world's largest museum of military aviation, the development of the Stealth bomber and its alleged dealings with space aliens. (Despite official denials, UFO enthusiasts contend that bodies of extraterrestrial visitors - including those said to have crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 - are stored at the base.)

But as the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, announced yesterday, from 31 October it will be where Presidents Milosevic of Serbia, Tudjman of Croatia and Izetbegovic of Bosnia, prodded by 200 aides and diplomats from the Contact Group, will try for a settlement of the Balkan war.

In most respects it fits the bill perfectly. The base, outside Dayton, is big enough to house everyone in ample, similar quarters. It is, by definition, secure and well protected. One hour's flight from Washington and New York, it is easily accessible for important visitors like Mr Christopher, but too far away for an instant dash by a disgruntled negotiator to the network television studios.

The ability to keep the press at bay is among Wright-Patterson's greatest charms. It "affords the kind of privacy that is necessary, we believe, to conduct a successful negotiation", Mr Christopher told the House National Security Committee.

Apart from a pre-talks tour of the site, and the formal opening ceremony, the media will be kept beyond the perimeter.

A "partial news black-out" will operate, the State Department said, and what briefings there are will be held in Washington. If there is a "Dayton agreement" it will be initialled there and signed formally in Paris a few days later. But, as US officials acknowledge, there is no guarantee the talks will succeed - one reason they will not be held at Camp David.

Such apprehensions are shared on Capitol Hill, where misgivings are widespread at the planned participation of up to 25,000 US ground troops in a Nato peace-keeping force in Bosnia.

Despite insistence by the Clinton administration that the force will be strong enough to intimidate any foe, Republicans especially are adamant that Congress be consulted before a final decision is taken.