US hopes for Bosnia deal by next week

Balkan peace talks: Christopher flies to Dayton to break impasse over powers of central government and status of Sarajevo
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Europe Editor

US officials expressed confidence yesterday that the Yugoslav peace talks in Ohio could end in a peace settlement by next week despite disputes over Sarajevo's status and other Bosnian territorial issues.

"It's conceivable we can make tremendous progress and end it this week. It's also conceivable it could go into next week," said Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman.

He was speaking as the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, flew to Dayton, Ohio, to inject momentum into negotiations between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia's Muslim-led government. One US official said territorial issues were the biggest obstacle to a Bosnian agreement, but other sources said problems had arisen over the role of a future constitutional court in the republic.

This dispute concerns how much power should be vested in a central Bosnian government and how much should be devolved to the republic's two component parts, the Muslim-Croat federation and a Bosnian Serb entity. The Serbs want central institutions to weild the minimum of power, while the Muslim- led government fears if the centre is too weak, Bosnia may suffer permanent partition.

In the case of Sarajevo, constitutional and territorial matters are intertwined, as the Bosnian Serb ambition to divide the city would diminish the authority of the central government. US negotiators support the Muslim position that Sarajevo should not be divided.

The three delegations from former Yugoslavia accept that the Muslim- Croat federation will comprise 51 per cent of Bosnia and the Serbs 49 per cent. Acceptance of this principle still allows scope for disagreement. The Serbs insist on a secure corridor around the northern town of Brcko so that Serb-held northern and eastern Bosnia are well connected. The Bosnian Croats are said to be challenging the Serbs in northern Bosnia, by insisting that Orasje, on the Sava river, should remain in Croat hands.

While playing down hopes of a sudden breakthrough, US officials are preparing to announce of a peace deal. Robert Gallucci, an ambassador at large who handled recent nuclear negotiations with North Korea, has been in Dayton discussing how to implement a peace accord. Another visitor to Ohio has been David Lipton, an Assistant Treasury Secretary, who is dealing with post-war financial arrangements in Bosnia. State Department officials said they hoped an agreement could be signed by next Thursday.

However, the Clinton administration faces resistance from Congress to the proposed deployment of US troops in Bosnia to patrol a peace settlement. Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich, the Republican leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives, told President Bill Clinton: "The level of support in Congress for deploying US military forces to Bosnia for peace-keeping is virtually nil."

The Clinton administration wants to send 20,000 troops to Bosnia as part of a 60,000-strong Nato force. It believes the chances of a stable peace will be slim if Nato forces do not go in.

The Ohio talks have achieved progress on two fronts: an agreement between Bosnia's Muslims and Croats to strengthen their federation, and an accord under which Serb-held Eastern Slavonia will return to Croatian rule within a maximum two years.

But there are signs that the Eastern Slavonia agreement is fraying at the edges. Local Serbs interpret the deal as granting them potential autonomy, while the Croatian government says that the accord makes no such promises.

nZagreb - Croatia's President, Franjo Tudjman, promoted General Tihomir Blaskic, commander of Bosnian Croat militia forces, to a post in the Croatian army inspectorate yesterday, the day after he was indicted for war crimes by a UN tribunal, agencies report. The move by Mr Tudjman, made in Dayton, Ohio, where he is participating in the Bosnian peace talks, appeared to defy the tribunal in The Hague and provide a safe haven for the indicted general.