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West gives its tacit support to Bosnian `traitor' Plavsic

When Serbian irregulars began ethnic cleansing raids into eastern Bosnia in early 1992, Biljana Plavsic hailed the soldiers as heroes and greeted their commander, the notorious Arkan, with a kiss on the cheek. A strange sort of person for the international community to embrace now as a moderate, she is the person in their view best placed to guarantee implementation of the Dayton peace accords.

Yesterday, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, followed in the footsteps of his US counterpart, Madeleine Albright, to Banja Luka in north-western Bosnia, to lend tacit support to Mrs Plavsic, who is president of the so-called Republika Srpska, the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia. In so doing, he dragged the international community ever deeper into an extraordinary power struggle that is pitting Mrs Plavsic in Banja Luka against her former mentor, Radovan Karadzic, and his acolytes in the mountain village of Pale outside Sarajevo.

This is no straightforward battle between good and evil. Mrs Plavsic is an unrepentant nationalist whose supporters believe they are the victims of an international anti-Serb conspiracy. She is generally reckoned to be far more nationalist than the more opportunistic Momcilo Krajisnik, the Serb member of the three-man Bosnian presidency and her most visible direct rival in Pale.

If there is anything good to say about her, it is that she is genuinely outraged at the way in which Mr Karadzic, from behind the scenes, and Mr Krajisnik, from centre stage, are running a parallel black market economy for their own gain.

Mrs Plavsic's misfortune is to be fighting her battle singlehanded. Parliament, the courts, the Orthodox church, and the media are in the hands of Mr Krajisnik, while the ruling party which she helped found, the SDS, decided to expel her 10 days ago. Local political observers dismiss her as an indifferently talented politician who has blown it; only the international community believes she represents an opportunity.

According to Western diplomats, Mrs Plavsic has shown willing to respect at least part of Dayton. She is prepared to keep dialogue going with the Muslim-Croat federation in the other half of Bosnia, even if she won't accept refugees from their side, and she appears to have given a green light for Nato-led troops to track down war criminals in the Banja Luka area. Mr Krajisnik, on the other hand, appears to be working towards an outright partition of Bosnia, and possible secession of the Republika Srpska into Serbia proper.

The Western argument does not cut much ice with Bosnian Serb intellectuals, who see the struggle as being far more about personalities than ideology. Serbian Bosnia is growing poorer and more desperate, and the politicians look ever more like vultures picking over the most attractive portions of the country's decaying flesh.

"We have no politics, no economy and no state ... There is no framework of rules co- ordinating the President, parliament and the government. Nobody accepts anybody else's decisions and everybody claims the law is on their side," said Branko Peric, a journalist.

There are two other reasons for the West to support Mrs Plavsic. First, that any sign of dissent in Bosnian Serb political life represents a step away from monolithic nationalism towards a more democratic, pluralist environment. Second, that a struggle between Banja Luka and Pale increases the likelihood that one side or the other will cut a deal with the international community and hand prominent figures over to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

US policy appears to be directed towards arresting Mr Karadzic - no doubt so that they can claim a moral victory and provide an excuse to pull out their troops by July next year. Soldiers cannot arrest Mr Kara- dzic on his own, since he is permanently surrounded by bodyguards, so a betrayal by some- one in his entourage is in order.

The political stand-off has thus turned into a swirl of Balkan intrigue. Are the Americans secretly talking to Mr Krajisnik as well as Mrs Plavsic? Are the two parties secretly talking to each other to protect their respective interests? Hovering over the whole thing is Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, who appears to be playing both sides against the middle to create maximum confusion for his own ends.

Bosnian Serb deputies have been changing sides overnight, according to their perception of what Mr Milosevic really thinks. Mr Krajisnik's supporters are calling Mrs Plavsic a traitor in their midst and the tool of foreign secret agents determined to turn Bosnia into an international protectorate.

Get your act together, Cook tells country's leaders

Zagreb, Croatia (AP) - Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary (pictured) met Bosnian Serb opposition leaders yesterday before going on to Croatia and talks with President Franjo Tudjman.

Mr Cook arrived in Zagreb from Banja Luka, the largest Serb-held city in Bosnia.

He had spent the morning in talks with Bosnian Serb opposition leaders there after a day of tough talking on Tuesday to leaders of Muslims, Serbs and Croats in Sarajevo, and praise for the mayor of Tuzla, which Cook said was the city where the three ethnic groups were the most integrated - as they were throughout pre-war Bosnia.

Mr Cook insisted that war criminals must be apprehended if real peace is to come to Bosnia. He also blasted leaders of all sides for not making much of the vast international assistance, for graft and corruption, human rights abuses and lack of media freedom.