Owen confident peace is close

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The Independent Online
PEACE in Bosnia was 'within our grasp', Lord Owen said yesterday as he arrived in Athens for international talks aimed at averting Western military intervention by persuading the Bosnian Serbs to sign the Vance-Owen peace plan. As President Bill Clinton sat down with his advisers in Washington to decide on tougher measures against the Serbs, UN and EC mediators were desperately seeking to devise a formula that would make the plan acceptable to the Bosnian Serbs but would also be acceptable to the Bosnian government.

The aim of the conference is to win a promise from the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, that he will recommend the plan to his parliament when it reconsiders it on Wednesday. It is hoped that the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, whose country was isolated by tougher international sanctions this week, will use his influence to persuade Mr Karadzic.

The Bosnian leader has made it clear that he wants a corridor linking Serb-held areas in northern and eastern Bosnia - he said yesterday that 'we do not want to live like the people of Nagorny Karabakh' - but it is unlikely that the Bosnian government of President Alija Izetbegovic will accept more than an internationally policed throughway.

Other incentives that may be thrown in to persuade the Bosnian Serbs are assurances that Serbs' rights will not be violated, and the possibility of 'territorial swaps' among Serbs, Croats and Muslims, diplomats said. 'Swaps have always been on,' said one European envoy. 'It's their country, after all.'

The conference is the final attempt by the Europeans, who essentially oppose any form of military intervention, to avert a decision by the Clinton administration that they regard as potentially disastrous.

'For the past nine months to a year, Izetbegovic has been after one thing: Western military intervention,' said one European diplomat. 'He only needs Karadzic to say no one more time and he's in business.'

Diplomatic sources revealed that the conference, which was called hastily on Thursday night, was the brainchild of the Greek Prime Minister, Constantine Mitsotakis, one of the most anti- interventionist European leaders with strong links to Belgrade.

After hasty consultations on Thursday, Mr Milosevic instructed Mr Karadzic to volunteer the fact that he was willing to attend a meeting in Greece, enabling Lord Owen to announce that the peace talks were being resumed.

Lord Owen is working on a proposal to expand the role of an 'international access authority' to put many of Bosnia's roads and railways under international control.

The conference, due to continue today, was being held at a luxury hotel complex in the Athens suburb of Vouliagmeno, overlooking the Saronic Gulf, with the cost believed to be footed by the Greek government. The opening of the talks was delayed last night after Franjo Tudjman, President of Croatia, decided to make a last-minute trip to Turkey - widely taken to be a counter-gesture in protest at the Greek role behind the scenes.

As the talks got under way, central Sarajevo came under heavy shelling. Four people were killed and 10 wounded.