Sceptical leaders sign precarious peace deal

Bosnia settlement: As Nato prepares to move in, Clinton urges leaders to make the accord work for the sake of the children
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It was 11.47am at the Elysee Palace yesterday when the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia picked up their gold-tipped pens and signed a peace treaty intended to herald a new dawn for the Balkans and Europe as a whole. It was less than 15 minutes later that the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, spoke the words that reminded the dozens of world leaders in attendance just how precarious the settlement may prove to be.

"My government is taking part in this agreement without enthusiasm," he announced, comparing Bosnia to a patient resigned to swallowing his prescribed medicine. The treaty guaranteed his country's unity. "But will this truly materialise or remain a piece of paper?"

If Mr Izetbegovic's blunt, bleak assessment of Bosnia's future threatened to cast a pall over the ceremony, the required spirit of anodyne optimism was quickly restored by Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, once widely viewed as the principal villain of the three-and-a-half year long Bosnian war. "For my part," he said, "I am convinced that a common language can be found among the peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina, despite the agonies they have passed through."

It then fell to President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, a communist general turned historian and nationalist politician, to give a summary of the causes of Europe's bloodiest conflict since 1945. The Bosnian war, he explained, was the culmination of what had begun with the Roman Empire's partition into its western and eastern components and continued with the Ottoman conquest of south-eastern Europe.

His sweep through history, drawing a convenient veil over crimes committed by the nationalist warlords and "ethnic cleansers" of the 1990s, did not seem to impress the six world leaders standing behind him. They included Felipe Gonzalez, the Spanish Prime Minister, representing the European Union; US President Bill Clinton, President Jacques Chirac of France, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, John Major and Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian Prime Minister. Mr Chernomyrdin was standing in for President Yeltsin, still being nursed back to health after his second heart attack this year.

All six joined the Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian leaders in signing the treaty, underlining the degree to which the Bosnian war has sucked in the outside world and tested to the limit the ability of international institutions to settle conflicts. As the peace accord was being signed, explosions rocked Sarajevo, Bosnian troops fired on a UN helicopter and Croat forces clashed with Islamic fighters in the first real outbreak since the mid-October ceasefire.

The buck of peace-making, having rested for four years with the EU, the UN and the American, European and Russian "Contact Group", now passes to Nato, which is to deploy 60,000 troops in Bosnia in an effort to convert the fine peace treaty words into a stable settlement.

"The conflict we hope is over, but the job truly is not done," Mr Major said. "It is now up to all of us to turn ceasefire into peace, peace into a lasting settlement, and the countries of former Yugoslavia into a stable and prosperous part of the European family."

Mr Clinton, whose hopes of re-election next year require that the 20,000 US troops going to Bosnia do not become entangled in a revived war, recalled Bosnia's tradition of religious and national tolerance. "If that past is any guide, this peace can take hold,'' he said. ''If the people of Bosnia want a decent future for their children, this peace must take hold. Do not let your children down."

Before the ceremony, Mr Clinton was at pains to smooth French feathers ruffled by the way that US negotiators effectively brushed Europe aside when brokering the peace settlement last month in Dayton, Ohio. Praising France for its diplomatic efforts and its contribution to the UN operation in former Yugoslavia - 56 French soldiers died and almost 600 were wounded, the largest number of any country - Mr Clinton told Mr Chirac: "We are signing this treaty in the place where it should be signed."

The French government urged Serbia to extend full recognition to Bosnia, Croatia, and Macedonia in their pre-war borders. By signing the peace treaty, Mr Milosevic acknowledged Bosnia's frontiers but won compensation in the fact that the country is formally divided into a Muslim-Croat zone and a Bosnian Serb republic that seems certain to gravitate towards Serbia.

Mr Milosevic's reluctance to recognise Croatia and Macedonia stems partly from his desire to have rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) accepted as the successor to the old Yugoslav federation. It also reflects uncertainty over the future of eastern Slavonia, the last piece of Croatian territory in rebel Serb hands after the Serb-Croat war of 1991. The region is due to return to Croatian control in a maximum of two years, but as the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, pointed out yesterday: "The situation remains very fragile."