West tries to regain ground in Bosnia

After a series of missteps and muddled signals, the Western allies are desperately trying to re-assert their authority across Bosnia and ensure that next weekend's municipal elections, seen as critical to the fragile credibility of the Dayton peace accords, go ahead in as near normal conditions as possible.

Speaking in Brussels on Friday, the US special envoy to Bosnia, Bob Gelbard, insisted that the internationally supervised elections would go ahead on 13 and 14 September, irrespective of whether hardline Bosnian Serbs, led by their former leader Radovan Karadzic in Pale, carry out a threatened boycott.

He also vowed to step up pressure to bring Mr Karadzic, top of the list of wanted Bosnian war crimes suspects, and henchmen like General Ratko Mladic, to justice before the international tribunal in The Hague.

But that catalogue of good intentions masks clear differences between Washington and some of its European allies (though not Britain, with whom "complete agreement" reigns on Bosnia policy, according to the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, after a meeting with Mr Gelbard in London on Thursday).

The US envoy yesterday urged Western Europe to take a "much tougher attitude" towards Serbia and its President Slobodan Milosevic, Mr Karadzic's prime patron and protector in Belgrade.

He accused Mr Milosevic of giving "increasing, overt support" to the Bosnian Serb hardliners, and of "lying" over his commitment to the Dayton deal. The Serb president was merely paying lip service to the 1995 accords, in order to secure increased Western economic aid.

To show that it too meant business, Mr Gelbard said Europe should follow America's example by stepping up trade sanctions against Belgrade, putting full diplomatic relations on ice, and denying landing rights to the Yugoslav national airline JAL.

In theory at least, this should intensify pressure on Mr Milosevic, and weaken Mr Karadzic in his own power struggle with Biljana Plavsic, the president of the Bosnian Serb republic, who is supported by the Nato allies.

Unfortunately, Washington's stern talk has been undermined by its deeds - notably the seizure of and then withdrawal by US peace-keepers from a guard post at a bridge at Brcko in northern Bosnia, and a separate decision to return a television transmitter which had been broadcasting hardline anti-Plavsic propaganda to pro-Karadzic police.

Both were about-turns adding to the impression that the US remains reluctant to take really draconian measures against the hardliners - up to and including an attempt to arrest Mr Karadzic - which could provoke the bloody confrontation that has not so far occurred in Nato-patrolled Bosnia.

Such a clash could cost the lives of American troops, and rekindle Congressional pressure for speedy withdrawal of the US contingent. This in turn would doom the entire peacekeeping operation.

Meanwhile, General Wesley Clark, the supreme Nato commander and a key American negotiator at Dayton, met Mr Milosevic in Belgrade last week to protest over the growing use of Bosnian Serb violence against the peace-keepers.

He warned that, if necessary, the peace-keepers would use deadly force to protect themselves.

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