War anniversary finds West adrift

Sarajevo has completed its third year under siege, the five-nation Contact Group, set up to end the war, is one year old, and, in the words of a British official yesterday, "we have reached yet again another major impasse", writes Michael Sheridan.

Defied by the Bosnian Serbs, distrusted by the Sarajevo government, manipulated by the Presidents of Serbia and Croatia, the Contact Group is divided also among its own members.

Britain and France want to dampen down the conflict, keep up the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims and push all sides towards a compromise peace. Russia says it wants an equitable peace but is dragged by history and religion towards the Serbs. Germany wants to play honest broker but is hampered by its ancient ties to Croatia. The US has criticised the Europeans for appeasing Serbian aggression, without commiting troops itself, and the Clinton administration faces pressure to grant military aid to the Bosnian government.

These divisions are played on by the key player, the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic. British officials believe Mr Milosevic still holds the key to a settlement in Bosnia and controls the rebel Serbs in the Krajina region of Croatia.

But the Contact Group's theory - pressure on Mr Milosevic equals pressure on the Bosnian Serbs - has been tested by recent events. Mr Milosevic has not met the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, since July last year. Conditions in Bosnian Serb territory have deteriorated, fuel is in short supply, while soldiers have not received wages for months. But three votes in the Bosnian Serb assembly and a referendum have rejected the Contact Group's peace plan.

The Contact Group will probably dispatch envoys to Belgrade and Zagreb again, within the fortnight. But their unity is in doubt. France and Britain favour a formula by which Serbia would recognise Bosnia and Croatia in return for the relaxation of UN sanctions on Belgrade. The US resists any move to "reward" Serbia, while the Russians continually tell the Serbs they are hard done by.

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