Serb collapse puts peace plan in jeopardy

Bosnia turning point: Diplomatic effort falters as runaway offensive gives Croats and Muslims control of half the country

EMMA DALY

Sarajevo and agencies

Massive gains by Bosnian government and Croat troops have brought the battle lines close to the 51-49 split with the Serbs envisioned by a peace plan drawn up by the five-nation Contact Group, but they are also jeopardising that plan. UN officials said yesterday that the American-led initiative to end more than four years of Balkan bloodshed is faltering because the offensive could force Serbia to send its soldiers to help their beleaguered brethren.

The large gains made by Croats in the current offensive also are putting pressure on the US-fostered Croat-Muslim alliance. The Muslim-led Bosnian government has always feared being squeezed out by Serbs and Croats. Croat and government forces claim they have captured some 2,400 sq miles - or just over 12 percent of Bosnia - in the past week.

The United Nations, which has no one on the ground in the north-west, said the split was now about half and half between Serbs on one hand and the government and Croats on the other. "It's about 50-50 . . . and that's a cautious estimate," said a UN spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Vernon, noting that some estimates already had the Serbs holding less than half of Bosnia.

The United Nations is deeply concerned by the offensive and appealed for "restraint, especially in the light of the looming humanitarian catastrophe around the town of Banja Luka," said another spokesman, Chris Gunness. The Bosnian Serbs, who have acknowledged heavy losses, claimed yesterday that they have stabilised defence lines, and said they will defend Banja Luka, their northern stronghold, which is jammed with tens of thousands of refugees. "Our only strategic goal is to defend the Banja Luka region," said Jovan Zametica, the spokesman for the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said. "All our industrial resources are concentrated there."

A Bosnian army source confirmed the Serbs had strengthened their defence lines, and said government and Croat troops were now encountering much stiffer resistance. One source said the offensive was likely to halt soon, possibly as early as today.

The Bosnian government yesterday proposed "political dialogue" with local Serbs to avert a battle for Banja Luka. But the Bosnian Foreign Minister, Mohamed Sacirbey, also rejected calls by mediators for a nationwide cessation of hostilities: "A ceasefire that allows the Serb military and paramilitaries to retrench would be counter-productive to the peace process," he said.

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said in Sarajevo yesterday that he had been assured the Bosnian objective "was to avoid an attack on Banja Luka" and the "massive humanitarian crisis" that would follow. (Mr Rifkind was not the object of a sniper near-miss, despite press reports by London- based correspondents who misinterpreted the usual city gunfire as a possible assassination attempt.)

Mr Rifkind welcomed a proposal from Mr Sacirbey at a joint news conference that the Bosnian government might refrain from attacking Banja Luka if it could open dialogue with "responsible leaders" there. Mr Sacirbey made clear the Bosnians want no dealings with "war criminals", extreme nationalists in the Banja Luka Serb leadership who have been responsible for some of the most brutal ethnic violence of Bosnia's war. But negotiations with other Serbs could allow civilians to stay in their homes and reintegrate Banja Luka into government territory, Mr Sacirbey said.

UN officials reported no more weaponry removed by Bosnian Serbs from the 20km exclusion zone around Sarajevo yesterday, but said the Serbs appeared to be grouping the guns to be withdrawn today.

The Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, who is the chief negotiator for the Bosnian Serbs, called for a total ceasefire throughout Bosnia. If Serb losses continue, he could be forced to break off peace talks and send in the Serb-led Yugoslav army to save Serb holdings in Bosnia.

A visibly dispirited Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy who is shuttling across the Balkans, acknowledged after talks with Mr Milosevic that he is making only "a little progress" towards a peace deal. A member of his delegation said: "we are far from reaching an agreement," listing several problems such as the fate of the remaining Serb-held swath of eastern Croatia, and land corridors linking together the Serb holdings in Bosnia, and linking Sarajevo to Gorazde, the sole Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia.

"We're going to redouble our efforts," said Mr Holbrooke, as he left for Zagreb, where he is to meet the Bosnian and Croatian presidents today.

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