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U.S. Diplomat Calls Bosnian Serbs Biggest Obstacle to Peace Mission

By Thomas W. Lippman
The Washington Post

Preparing to return to Europe and resume his Balkan peace negotiations, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke Friday identified the Bosnian Serbs as the biggest obstacle to the success of his long-shot mission.

The rebel Serbs, whose refusal to live in a multiethnic Bosnia that they do not control was a principal cause of the 4-year-old war, are the only faction in the Balkan conflict that Holbrooke's team did not visit before the diplomatic mission was interrupted last weekend by a road accident that killed three members.

They represent the only faction that has refused to negotiate a settlement on the basis of a plan that would divide Bosnia roughly in half, giving the Serbs control of 49 percent of the country.

And they are the perpetrators, Holbrooke said Friday, of "a war crime of historic proportions" at Srebrenica, the United Nations-designated "safe haven" in eastern Bosnia that the Serbs overran July 11.

Holbrooke and his reconstituted team will meet in Paris Monday with representatives of European governments, including the "contact group" nations that devised the 51-49 separation plan. Then they will consult Bosnian president Alia Izetbegovic and fly on to Belgrade to see Serb Republic president Slobodan Milosevic.

When will they meet with the Bosnian Serbs? "I don't know," Holbrooke said at a State Department briefing. "I don't know."

He said the Bosnian Serbs "must in the end be party to a deal." But he said that negotiating with them now, when they have refused to consider a plan all other parties to the conflict have agreed to use as a basis for dividing Bosnia on ethnic lines, would be "tantamount to a major change in (the U.S.) position in return for nothing at all."

Holbrooke refused to say what he thought the chance of success is for his mission, saying "I'm not going to bet on games I'm playing in." Earlier, on ABC television, he said the chance of success is "pretty small," a retreat from the assessments of other U.S. officials this week who said they were hopeful, if not optimistic.

The Clinton administration undertook the latest peace initiative after the biggest military setback in the war for the ethnic Serbs of the former Yugoslavia: their crushing defeat by Croatia in the region known as the Krajina and their expulsion from communities there where Serbs had lived for centuries. The U.S. assumption was that Bosnia's Serbs, weakened by the loss of support from their compatriots across the border in Croatia and facing a more vigorous Bosnian government army, might have been softened up enough to negotiate on the basis of the 51-49 plan. So far there is no sign of such an outcome. Although the peace plan calls for division of Bosnia along ethnic lines, with the Serbs getting control of 49 percent instead of the 70 percent they now have, Holbrooke insisted Friday that the United States is not promoting "partition" of a member of the United Nations.