Muslims play for time as Washington pushes for partition



Nato's guns may be targeting the rebel Serbs in Bosnia, but the diplomatic fire is turning towards the government as talks begin today between Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade on a possible settlement to the war. Officials in Bosnia are keen to end the war that has devastated their nation, but are fearful of pressure to accept a deal that legitimises division.

The Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, said the meeting was "talks about talks" to prepare for substantive negotiations. "The map will not be considered, no details will be considered, only principles," he said in an interview. "Bosnia cannot be divided. It will be rearranged constitutionally and territorially. It will not be divided - that's one of the principles."

But for all the international talk of preserving the integrity of Bosnia- Herzegovina, the signs are that partition - de facto, possibly even de jure - will be the result of the US peace initiative. Sources suggest the map proposed by Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat leading the talks, defines two contiguous, compact territories that would facilitate a carve- up. And the diplomats have slowly eased into a position where they treat both sides more or less as equals, referring to two constitutional entities.

The Bosnian government refuses to set out its aims but analysts say Sarajevo believes that if it can postpone the official division of Bosnia, it envisages achieving its aims in several years' time by military, political or economic means.

Mr Silajdzic says the Serb-held lands need a period of recovery to build a democratic, multi-ethnic and tolerant society. "It is a temporary state - we have to get that part of Bosnia-Herzegovina into some kind of normality," the Prime Minister said. "They will live there, have their own administrative arrangements, their own police, even their own army, but they will have to learn to respect the state, live in it before joining it." Confederal links with Serbia proper was out, not negotiable.

The Bosnian government talks as the moral victor - but officials expect tremendous pressure to settle for less, especially since the West can argue that Nato has done a great deal for Sarajevo and expects some return. "Of course, we are afraid of the pressure - that would be an awkward situation, but we will not give in, we have reached the limit," Mr Silajdzic said. "I want peace, but not at any cost."

The question remains, however, whether the Bosnian army is capable of defeating the rebels, even with the benefit of massive Nato air raids, and whether the international community will put up with Bosnian prevarication if it sees a resolution - any resolution - of the conflict within its grasp.

An adviser to President Alija Izetbegovic asked what the priority was, replied: "Peace." That implies a willingness to make sacrifices that are unpopular at home. The Holbrooke plan does appear to grant General Ratko Mladic's demand that he be given a Bosnian Serb entity that is militarily defensible - but in return it requires that the rebels sacrifice claims to Sarajevo, which would be united and surrounded by Bosnian government territory.

Mr Silajdzic expressed a certain optimism for the future. "They understand now that the project of Greater Serbia has failed. It is in their interest to stop now [or] they might lose even this," he said. "It's obvious the balance has tilted."

Gen Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the civilian leader of the Bosnian Serb rebellion, might do well to consult their opposite numbers from the now- defunct "Republic of Serb Krajina" in Croatia. They were offered extensive autonomy, their own flag, currency, police force, president and parliament - but they would not even read the plan. Six months later, the Croats drove them out, without a murmur from Belgrade.

The balance is different in Bosnia, but the Serbs, if they have any sense, will grab a good deal while it is still going. The government's best hope may be the Bosnian Serbs' apparent desire to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.