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Bosnian Peace Negotiations Coming To U.S. After Weeks of Talks Failed

By Saul Friedman

The Bosnian peace talks are moving to Washington this weekend, in a U.S. effort to forge a union of Croats and Muslims that could then press for a settlement with the Serbs in all of Bosnia.

A senior State Department official said the United States issued the invitation to the Bosnian government and the Croats after weeks of talks in Croatia, Germany and elsewhere in Europe failed to bridge differences between the two warring sides.

But the Croats and Muslims Wednesday agreed to a cease-fire that goes into effect Friday, and the United States decided to take over the negotiations aimed at forging a political alliance.

The talks, which could begin as early as Saturday, will continue for two or three days, the official said. "Then we'll see where we go from there."

A promising sendoff came from Zagreb, where Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, acknowledging Western pressure, gave his blessing to a merger of Bosnia's Muslims and Croats, and suggested a union with Croatia.

Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, who is visiting in Washington and met for the second time Thursday with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, agreed to remain here for the talks. The Croats will be represented by Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic and one of the Bosnian Croat leaders, Kresimir Zubak.

Charles Redman, special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, who has been involved in the talks in Europe, is to lead the American team, but the official said Christopher and other top policy-makers may meet with the Croat and Bosnian participants.

The United States, the official said, "is trying to push the process to a conclusion as rapidly as possible," working against time before the momentum and optimism that followed the success of the NATO ultimatum at Sarajevo is dissipated.

The proposal on the table, which has been discussed on and off for months, provides for a union of the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats inside Bosnia into "some sort of entity," the structure of which is the subject of the negotiations.

The Bosnian Croats, with help from Croatia, were once allies of the mostly Muslim Bosnian government against the Bosnian Serbs, who made war on the Muslims with aid from the Serbs in Belgrade. But when the Serbs seemed to be winning the war, the Croats attacked the Muslims to grab their chunk of the country.

The Croats fear the Serbs more than they fear the Muslims. And periodically, the Muslims and Croats have been allied against the Serbs. Now, the United States hopes it can bring the two sides together in a more lasting political alliance.

The hope is that a new Croat-Muslim union in Bosnia, said the official, who briefed reporters on condition he remain anonymous, could become strong enough to deal with the Bosnian Serbs and then win the concessions from them necessary to make peace. The result would presumably be the establishment of two geographical entities - one Croat-Muslim, the other Serb.

But Tudjman seemed to go one step further. In his announcement on Croatian television, he accepted a confederation with Bosnia's Muslims.

"The international community thinks and is persuading us that the Croatian people in Bosnia-Herzegovina should live together in a community with the Muslims," Tudjman said. "The outcome of this could be federation of Muslims and Croats within Bosnia-Herzegovina and confederation of (that entity) with ... Croatia. This is acceptable to us."

While the United States took the lead in the negotiations and pledged support for the Bosnian government, the Germans, with longtime ties to the Croats, were enlisted to encourage Zagreb to come to a settlement with the Muslims. And eventually, said the official, the United States expects that Russia, traditionally friend of the Serbs, will pressure the Bosnian Serbs as well as Belgrade to withdraw from at least some of the territory they took from the Muslims.

Eventually, he said, the union, however it is organized, could combine in a confederation with Croatia to form a "viable, durable state," something Tudjman suggested earlier in the day. He added that a Bosnian Croat-Muslim entity alongside a Bosnian Serb entity would constitute a two-way division of the country, rather than the three-way partition envisioned by the European plan, which has been put aside for the moment.