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Milosevic enters Bosnian fray

Slobodan Milosevic, the strongman of Serbia, looks set to fly into Serb- controlled Bosnia today or tomorrow - his first visit to the region since the height of the war - to intervene in the increasingly bitter power struggle between supporters of his erstwhile protege, Radovan Karadzic, and the current darling of the western diplomats, the Bosnian Serb President, Biljana Plavsic.

A Nato spokesman in Sarajevo said that Mr Milosevic had sought permission to fly from Belgrade to Banja Luka, Mrs Plavsic's headquarters, sometime later this week and the trip looked like a classic Milosevic manoeuvre to ensure that, whatever the outcome of the crisis, he would get the credit for clearing it up.

The power struggle in the so-called Republika Srpska, as the Serb-held north and east of Bosnia is known, has reached new heights of bitterness since the weekend, when Mrs Plavsic succeeded in wresting control of the Banja Luka studios of state-controlled television.

Thanks almost certainly to the noisy support she has received from the West, she has also won over as many as half the deputies in the Bosnian Serb parliament, a sizeable chunk of the police and possibly 50 per cent of the mini-state's army commanders.

Mr Karadzic's followers, led by the Serb member of the three-man Bosnian federal presidency, Momcilo Krajisnik, have seen their power base in Pale, in the mountains above Sarajevo, gradually chipped away since the crisis erupted in July.

Western governments are portraying the conflict as a stand-off between a pragmatic Mrs Plavsic - seen as willing to take steps to implement the Dayton peace accords - and a hardline Mr Krajisnik, who is denounced as a black marketeer interested ultimately in partitioning Bosnia into two or three separate units.

The reality is more complicated than that, since Mrs Plavsic is an unrepentant nationalist with some highly unsavoury characters in her camp. While it is true that Mr Krajisnik has been organising a highly lucrative black economy, he is also believed by local observers to be capable of pragmatic talk as long as the pay-off is attractive enough. A key factor in the whole equation is Mr Karadzic, the number-one wanted man at the international war crimes tribunal.

The struggle boils down to that subject on which Mr Milosevic is so learned - power. Up to now, the master manipulator of Balkan politics has played both sides against the middle, overtly supporting Mrs Plavsic one day while making little secret of keeping lines of communication open with the other side.