Serbs' tough line throws peace hopes into jeopardy

Ohio talks: Milosevic balks over recognition of Bosnia's borders, human rights issues and removal of warlords from power
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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

The Yugoslav peace negotiations in Ohio were reported to be at an impasse yesterday, with Serbia complaining about US pressure to make concessions and Croatia taking a hard line on the future of the Serb-controlled enclave of Eastern Slavonia.

In former Yugoslavia there were more violent setbacks, in the form of a grenade and gun attack by unidentified assailants that wounded seven French UN peace-keepers in the southern Bosnian city of Mostar.

An official news blackout has been placed on the talks at a US air base near Dayton, Ohio, but diplomats said the atmosphere was strained. One characterised the negotiating positions of the Croats, Serbs and Muslims as "depressingly familiar brinkmanship".

Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, is under pressure to secure the removal of the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, as a precondition for a settlement. The US government, brokering the talks, has signalled it will not send troops to patrol an accord unless Mr Karadzic and General Mladic are removed from power.

Without US troops deployed in the region, the chances of a stable peace settlement, particularly in Bosnia, look slim.

Yet the Republican-dominated Congress is unwilling to endorse the despatch of thousands of American soldiers to Bosnia as long as Mr Karadzic and General Mladic, whom the UN has named as war crimes suspects, remain in office.

Mr Milosevic is being asked to recognise Bosnia and Croatia in their pre-war borders

This would, in theory, eliminate the possibility of the creation of a Greater Serbia, incorporating Serb-populated parts of Bosnia and Croatia. However, since the establishment of such a state was one of the original Serb war aims in 1991, it is not easy for Mr Milosevic to give ground without making himself politically vulnerable to nationalists in the Serbian political apparatus.

Mr Milosevic is being asked also to guarantee the protection of human rights of ethnic minorities in Serbia. This refers to the predominantly Albanian population of the southern province of Kosovo and to the Muslims of the Sandzak region straddling Serbia and Montenegro.

Officials close to the peace talks said Mr Milosevic was angry about the US pressure, suspecting he had been lured to Ohio under false pretences. "He is being asked to make some concessions that weren't mentioned to him in the run-up to the talks," one official said.

Mr Milosevic contends that he does not exercise sufficient influence over Bosnian Serb politics to determine who should control the government and army. However, it appears that the gritty chief US mediator, Richard Holbrooke, is not prepared to tolerate Mr Milosevic's evasive tactics.

As for the Croats, sources close to the Ohio talks said there were fears that President Franjo Tudjman's delegates were stringing out the negotiating process to avoid a settlement that would grant autonomy to Serbs in Eastern Slavonia. They said Mr Tudjman's preferred solution appeared to be the removal of the Serbs from the region, just as the Serb populations of Western Slavonia and Krajina fled, or were ejected, in May and August.

Eastern Slavonia, conquered by local Serbs and the Serbian-led Yugoslav army in 1991, is the last piece of Croat territory still in Serb hands. The local Serbs want a three-year period during which the region would be under UN administration, followed by a referendum on the region's status. But Mr Tudjman has warned that if the Ohio talks do not return the region to Croatia, the Croatian army could launch an attack any time after 30 November.

The attack on French peacekeepers in Mostar occurred on Sunday night, when a French guard was shot in the arm and six soldiers were wounded by a grenade blast. It was the most serious violation of the ceasefire that was declared in Bosnia on 12 October.