The Bosnian peace talks moved swiftly to business last night as the United States and its Contact Group partners presented the presidents of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia with a comprehensive draft peace agreement designed to end theBalkan war.
Immediately after the plenary opening session, chaired by Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, the chief US negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, was due to table the plan, divided into10 sections, including a framework constitutional agreement, a draft division of territory and arrangements for the deployment of a Nato force should peace be achieved.
The talks probably represented "the last, best, chance for peace", Mr Christopher said, as he flew into the huge, tightly guarded Wright-Patterson Air Force base, where the talks are being held: "I hope Dayton, Ohio, will be remembered as the place where the killing was finally brought to a halt."
Despite outward optimism on all sides, the first signs were not promising. "They're talking peace but don't show the slightest readiness for compromise," Mr Holbrooke said, after greeting Bosnia's leader, Alija Izetbegovic, the last of the three leaders to arrive.
Compromise, however, will be essential to resolve a host of disagreements, any one of which could wreck the negotiations. They range from the details of the envisaged 51-49 territorial split of Bosnia between the Croat-Muslim federation and the Bosnian Serbs, to constitutional question of how to create a unitary state with two "entities", which is not a fig-leaf for partition.
According to Mr Holbrooke, "80 to 90 per cent" of the map has been settled, but not the most awkward areas, including Sarajevo and access to Gorazde. Of the constitutional problems, he predicted that elections and the voting rights of refugees could be hardest to resolve.
Formal meetings of the three delegations will be held in a meeting room at the base's Hope Hotel, at a table surrounded by simple beige chairs, with seating for lesser officials behind them. After the opening ceremony, the room is not likely to be used, at least in the early stages of discussions.
Barring quick breakthroughs, the "proximity talks" will be moved forward by Mr Holbrooke and other officials of the Contact Group, shuttling between the three delegations to prod them towards agreement. About 200 diplomats and officials will be in permanent residence at the Visiting Officers' Quarters.
When sufficient common ground has been achieved, the Croats, Bosnians and Serbs will meet face to face. In the event of important interim agreements, the press may be summoned back to Dayton. Otherwise, US officials intend a virtual news blackout. Whether the three delegations will keep their promise not to talk to the press remains to be seen. But if an agreement can be reached, a formal treaty will be signed in Paris shortly afterwards.
Although all parties have hardened their positions on the eve of the talks, diplomats believe a deal can be struck, perhaps within a month. This could see a Nato peace-keeping force, including 20,000 US troops, on the ground in Bosnia by the end of the year.
"This is the only way to do it," one Contact Group diplomat said as he arrived, arguing that no side had anything to gain from a resumption of fighting."I am an optimist, I believe these talks will succeed," President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia said after he arrived.
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