UK and France court Islam



Britain and France yesterday mounted a drive to win diplomatic support from Islamic nations before today's peace talks in Geneva between the foreign ministers of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia.

Their aim was to get Muslim countries and the US to convince the Bosnian government to show flexibility in the negotiations. London and Paris regard the Geneva talks as a watershed after more than three years of fruitless efforts to broker a settlement. Both have said they will withdraw their troops (there are 9,000 British peace-keepers in former Yugoslavia) if the conflict breaks out again into full-scale war.

"We are at a very important stage," said the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, arriving in Paris yesterday to add his presence to a preliminary meeting of Islamic foreign ministers and representatives of the US, France, Russia and Germany.

"We should be under no illusions," Mr Rifkind added." It is going to be a long and hard negotiation, because there are some very real issues at stake."

The Western allies have lobbied hard before the meeting in Geneva this morning between the Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian ministers, at which Serbia will speak for the Bosnian Serbs. The talks will also include senior Western and Russian officials, who want to hear the positions of the warring parties on new constitutional arrangements for Bosnia and a re-drawn map of its ethnic components.

The Foreign Secretary began his own lobbying early yesterday when he met the Bosnian Foreign Minister, Muhamed Sacirbey, and the US special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, during a refuelling stop in Rome on his way from Ankara.

As part of a carefully orchestrated effort to soothe Islamic opinion, the Nato alliance has sent Turkish F-16 fighters on combat missions over Bosnia to identify Serb targets and to provide cover for other planes on bombing runs.

At yesterday's meeting Mr Rifkind will have sought to convince ministers that Britain is committed to end the Bosnian Serb attacks on Sarajevo and to work for a just settlement of the Bosnian dispute.