Nations seek to shore up peace

Bosnia accord: Focus shifts to London as ministers gather to determine strategy for implementing agreement
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Diplomatic Editor



Foreign ministers will mount an informal effort to resolve the dispute between Serbia and Croatia over the region of eastern Slavonia at the Peace Implementation Conference on the former Yugoslavia, opening in London today.

The discussions are expected to take place in the margins of formal sessions on the military and civilian efforts to carry out the Dayton peace accords, which set out the terms for an end to the war in Bosnia.

European ministers are keen to use the opportunity also to defuse the issue of eastern Slavonia, a border area of Croatia occupied by separatist Serbs. Under the Dayton formula the region is to be ruled by an international authority for up to two years, after which time it will revert to Croatian sovereignty. But the process could be delayed by the absence of any agreement to protect the status of Serbs remaining in the area, and there are also other areas of disagreement.

"The eastern Slavonia question could still set off a war between Serbia and Croatia unless it is resolved," said a Western diplomat, "and it is the kind of side issue that could disrupt the whole settlement in Bosnia".

The ministers will also be expected to agree on a new structure of military and civilian relations in the international effort in Bosnia, hoping to avoid the bureaucratic conflicts which bedevilled the failed United Nations mission.

Although discussions on military arrangements are taking place at Nato in Brussels, the London conference is certain to provide a forum for political tensions to surface, particularly between France and the US.

The French government, whose troops will man the Sarajevo sector, has already expressed concern over the provision in the Dayton accords for the Muslim-led government to take over Serb suburbs of the capital. While partly fed by worries over the fate of two French airmen presumed to be in Serb hands, the issue could still cause sharp disagreement among the Western allies.

The foreign ministers are likely to agree on the appointment of the European Union negotiator, Carl Bildt, as the first High Representative to co-ordinate civilian relief, reconstruction, the protection of human rights and the holding of elections.

The 53-nation Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) met yesterday in Budapest to discuss its mandate to supervise the preparation and conduct of elections for the presidency and legislature of Bosnia- Herzegovina. The polls are to be held within six to nine months of the formal signature of peace agreement in Paris on 14 December.

"We have never taken on anything like this before," said a Western delegate. "Success would greatly enhance the OSCE's credibility. But if we fail it could all be called into question." Another said: "The Clinton administration has put itself on the line with this peace plan. They do not want it to be an empty piece of paper - particularly if US troops are going to be getting involved."

The OSCE plans to establish offices throughout the Muslim-Croat and Serb areas of Bosnia. A $24.5m budget has been earmarked, and it will employ 200-300 monitoring experts.