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Bosnian Peace Talks Falter Due to Boundary Disputes

By Peter Maass
Special to The Washington Post


The Bosnian peace talks collapsed Wednesday night after the Serb and Croat delegations refused to meet demands from the Muslm-led government for a bigger share of land in a proposed settlement that would divide the nation among its three warring factions.

The breakdown risked prolonging a 17-month-old war that has already cost tens of thousands of lives and forced the West to abandon its goal of a unitary Bosnia comprising its Muslim, Serb and Croat communities.

"The greatest danger facing Bosnia-Herzegovina is fragmentation, anarchy, warlords and chaos," warned a tiredf-looking David Owen, the European Community's mediator at the talks. "It's not that very far away."

Charles Redman, the special U.S. envoy to the talks, said,"It's a tragedy they could not come to a solution. They were very close to an agreement, but I accept (Bosnian President Alija) Izetbegovic's reasons."

In Washington, State Department officials blamed the Serbs for the breakdown, while Secretary of State Warren Christopher and national security adviser Anthony Lake met Wednesday night to review U.S. options, staff writer Daniel Williams reported. "The stubbornness of the Serbs in the face of reasonable demands by the Muslims is responsible for the collapse," a State Department official said. "The Muslim demands do not strike us as things that ought to have broken off a deal."

In Geneva, Redman advised both the Serbs and Croats that the Muslim demands represented "legitimate adjustments" to the proposed division of Bosnia.

It was unclear whether this breakdown in the talks meant that there would be no future negotiations, but it was clearly a major setback in the months-old struggle by mediators to find a peaceful solution to the Balkans war.

As they left the U.N. headquarters at twilight, leaders of the three delegations expressed willingness to continue negotiations,but they also made it clear that they are prepared to continue fighting, too.

Owen said that at no point in the past several days had the three sides been close to agreement. But at the same time, he said,there was no "fresh approach" offered and the proposed peace plan was not formally withdrawn.

When Wednesday's talks began, there were three key demands from Izetbegovic, a Muslim, and only one of them was met when the talks broke up after 10 hours.

The Croats refused to give the Muslims a land corridor that would provide access to the Adriatic Sea, and the Serbs refused to return territory in the Krajina region of north Bosnia. The Serbs yielded on only the demand for a land corridor connecting the Muslim, enclaves in eastern Bosnia with Muslim-held Gorazde and Sarajevo.

The Serbs agreed to a three-kilometer-wide corridor, a much better offer than the indefensible road link that they had agreed to under the draft plan unveiled by Owen on Aug. 20.

Under that plan, endorsed by Serbs and Croats but not Muslims,the Serbs would have gotten 52 percent of Bosnia for their ethnic ministate, while the Bosnian government would have gotten 30percent and the Croats about 17 percent. The agreement would mean that the Serbs and Croats, although condemned as aggressors, would hold onto territory acquired by force.

Izetbegovic described his demands as the "minimum of minimums." He said the additional territory he sought was essential to ensure that the rump Muslim ministate could survive.He said he would not back down from these demands, and he insisted that battered Sarajevo, Bosnia's capital, could survive yet another winter of war. "It will be difficult, but it can," he said.

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic said Wednesday night that his side would keep a muzzle on its guns, indicating that there would be no immediate Serb offensives. He quickly made it clear what he expects for this good behavior: the lifting of U.N.economic sanctions against Serb-led Yugoslavia.

"Is it logical to prolong sanctions against Serbs on the basis of the Muslim leadership rejection of the plan?" he asked.

Balkans observers say Milosevic's strategy is tactical. With his goal of seizing more than half of Bosnia assured but with the Serbian economy crippled, Milosevic wants the fighting to stop and the sanctions lifted.

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman was the first to leave the talks Wednesday night and he angrily declared that the Muslim demand for a corridor to the Adriatic was "impossible" because it would cut Croat territory in Bosnia in half.