US plan asks Serbs to give up east Slavonia

Balkan turmoil: Serbs reel from Croat attacks on Trebinje and Drvar 8 Washington presents new peace plan to Milosevic

SARAH HELM

Zagreb

The United States appeared last night to have won at least outline support for its new Balkan peace plan from the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic.

But the fate of the plan could depend on the outcome of a renewed power struggle between the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic.

Although the two men appeared to have patched up their quarrel last week, there was speculation last night about an imminent Belgrade-sponsored military coup to oust the unyielding Mr Karadzic as Prime Minister. A statement from the entire Bosnian Serb general staff accused Mr Karadzic of "deception" . The generals said that in spite of promises to the contrary, he was still planning to dump their boss, General Mladic. as military commander.

Despite his brutal record in treatment of Muslim civilians, General Mladic is thought to be readier than Mr Karadzic to consider a land-swap peace deal. With his troops under pressure in western Bosnia, and likely to come under renewed Croatian assault today near Dubrovnik, he is said to be ready to cut his losses.

Richard Holbrooke, the US Assistant Secretary of State, engaged in shuttle diplomacy on the Washington peace plan, spoke to Mr Milosevic for five hours in Belgrade yesterday. Afterwards Mr Milosevic said: "The United States wishes to help in this as much as possible to achieve urgent peace and stability in the Balkans."

It is understood that the US plan calls on Belgrade to withdraw from east Slavonia, the last chunk of Croatia still held by Serbian forces. Belgrade has been promised that Croatia would accept a wide degree of autonomy for Serb-populated areas of the land and full monitoring of human rights. For two years after the Serb withdrawal, the area would be placed under UN administration.

The plan also calls for a right of return for the Serbian refugees who fled the Croatian army conquest of Krajina. UN sources scoffed at this element of the plan yesterday, reporting that Croatians had set Serbian villages alight in south of the region, burning crops and looting.

The US package deal is described as "all for all" - the lifting of all sanctions in return for peace and the recognition by Serbia of Croatia and Bosnia.

The carve-up of Bosnia would provide roughly 49 per cent for the Bosnian Serbs and 51 per cent for the Muslim-Croat federation, as envisaged under previous plans, with the Serb area federated to Serbia proper and the Muslim-Croat federation linked to Croatia.

Despite US denials that Washington is asking for the surrender of Gorazde, the last Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia, EU diplomats believe the Muslims may be pressed to make the concession, in return for more land around Sarajevo.

Considerable doubts remain about the viability of the US ideas. The Bosnian government is reported to be divided, fearing that it will be left with a fig-leaf state, lodged between Croatia and Serbia.

EU diplomats say the "window of opportunity" for the peace initiative, created by the shift in the strategic balance,will last "only weeks."

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