This is last chance to end the war, says Clinton

Bosnia peace talks: Three Balkan presidents head for US amid fears that odds remain stacked against final agreement

RUPERT CORNWELL

Dayton, Ohio

As the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia headed for Dayton, Ohio, a sombre President Bill Clinton warned that the peace talks that open today at an air force base in the American Midwest represented the best "and perhaps the last chance for a very long time" of ending the Bosnian war.

Flanked by Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, and the chief US Bosnia negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, Mr Clinton said the US could not impose a peace on the belligerents - "only the parties to this terrible conflict can end it." But American leadership was essential, as was the participation of US ground troops in the Nato peace-keeping force to police any settlement.

Promising to seek "an expression of support" from a sceptical Congress for the operation, Mr Clinton reiterated that the 20,000 or more US troops sent to Bosnia would not be asked to enforce an unenforceable peace. The first requirement was a real settlement at Dayton, and an agreement "to end this mindless slaughter."

At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, preparations were complete for the arrival of Presidents Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia, and an estimated 200 aides and other diplomats who will be housed on the base. But what happens when the negotiations begin is anyone's guess.

Several potential pitfalls loom, starting with the ability of Mr Milosevic to sign a deal on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs. "If not, we're not going to have an agreement," warns Mr Holbrooke, whose arm-twisting and shuttle diplomacy have been largely responsible for bringing the peace process this far.

Then there are the tensions between Bosnians and Croats in their federation, due to be awarded 51 per cent of the country's territory under the draft settlement to be presented by the US in Dayton; Croatia's threats to use force to regain Eastern Slavonia from the Serbs and the renewed outcry over atrocities committed by the Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica, with which Mr Milosevic could yet be linked. Even if he is not, the Bosnian Muslims are demanding the war-crimes issue be tackled directly in the talks.

Finally, the administration must contend with Congress's hostility to the deployment of US soldiers, symbolised by a House of Representatives resolution this week, demanding Congress's approval beforehand. The non- binding resolution was carried by 315 votes to 103, backed by half of House Democrats as well as almost every Republican.

And these difficulties do not touch upon the substance of any settlement itself. Understandably, Mr Holbrooke plays down the prospects of success in negotiations which are likely to be tougher even than the 1978-79 Middle East talks. Dayton, he says, is "a gamble". The talks could last a week or three months, "but with no assurance of success", only the near certainty that failure would send Bosnia back to war.

Under the "proximity talks" formula, modelled on the Middle East talks at Camp David, the parties will talk directly or via Mr Holbrooke and other mediators. The starting point is a "very specific" draft peace settlement drawn up by Mr Holbrooke and the five-nation Contact Group. The negotiations will deal separately with the various issues - the constitution, the split of territory, the status of Sarajevo, reconstruction, the return of refugees - so that impasse on one will not block progress on the rest.

A strict media black-out will operate, with what briefings there are being held in Washington, except for specific interim agreements, for which the press will be summoned to Dayton. The three presidents have promised to say nothing either. The plenary sessions will be held at the base's Hope Hotel, named after the comedian Bob Hope.

n Sarajevo - The United Nations is dramatically cutting its troops in Bosnia even before a peace deal is signed, reflecting its financial crisis and the prospect of UN soldiers being replaced by a new Nato-led force, Reuter reports.

The UN military spokesman, Chris Vernon, said that that up to 6,000 soldiers were ready to go home.

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