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Serbs back partition plan

THE BOSNIAN Serbs are "definitely" ready to withdraw to less than half the territory of Bosnia and want a ceasefire as soon as possible, their Vice President Nikola Koljevic said yesterday.

He also confirmed that secret talks are going on to divide Sarajevo and predicted that there could be a full scale international peace conference within two weeks.

Puffing a cigarette as he lounged in the foyer of a luxury hotel in Geneva, Professor Koljevic - who fancies himself as an English literature scholar - invoked Henry James to express his regret that peace talks had come "late. . . so late in the day."

Professor Koljevic said the Bosnian Serb military commander, General Ratko Mladic, would "definitely" withdraw from areas conquered by his men after a negotiated settlement. "There's no question about that. Mladic is not a warlord. He doesn't want war for the sake of war. . . he's not that kind of man."

He said General Mladic wanted "explicit guarantees and a ceasefire" before he would agree to open routes into Sarajevo and open its airport. He wanted to meet the British UN commander, General Rupert Smith, to "decide about the dynamics and the calibre of weapons for withdrawal".

Professor Koljevic, deputy to the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, confirmed that the Serbs now accepted in principle the division of Bosnia with 49 per cent for their own republic and 51 per cent for a Muslim-Croat federation. At present the Serbs control some 70 per cent of Bosnian territory.

"This principle is open to further adjustment by mutual agreement," he said. "I'm quite sure we can do the swaps - exchanging quantity for quality."

The "number one Serb priority" was to widen a corridor around the town of Brcko which links their possessions in north and south Bosnia. He agreed that the Muslims "must have their links between Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenitsa and south towards Mostar". He also revealed that the United States was conducting "under the table" negotiations about the future of Sarajevo.

"They don't want to tell you everything. They are very good at this secret diplomacy. What we know so far is that the most vital matter is that parts of Sarajevo which are going to belong to the Serbs or the Muslims will be 'compact' [ie, geographically linked] with the rest of their territory."

The professor, who represented the Bosnian Serbs at the Geneva talks, said there could be a full-scale peace conference "within 10 or maybe 15 days". The Serbs had come to the negotiating table "at gunpoint or shall I say bomb point" but they had won important concessions. "We now have our Republika Srpska - the first time it has been officially called that. It becomes an international reality."

Two vital unwritten principles had been worked out, he said. The first was that the Serbs would enjoy full "equality of rights" with the Muslims and Croats. The second - which he said was particularly endorsed by the British representative, Pauline Neville-Jones, political director of the Foreign Office - was that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed".

The scene is now set for a heavyweight bout of negotiations. The Muslim- led Bosnian government is bound to put up bitter resistance to the formal separation of Sarajevo and diplomats believe it will argue strongly to restrict links between Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs. The government also rejects any idea that it will give up the encircled town of Gorazde.

But as Nato planes continued to bombard Bosnian Serb targets yesterday, prompting increased Russian anger, there exists massive international pressure on all sides - including the Muslims - to reach a compromise settlement. None the less, some factions in the Bosnian government still hope that the arms embargo will be lifted and they can then wage a successful military campaign with US support.