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U.S. Hopes Airstrikes Will Hasten Bosnia Peace Talks

By Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times
ZAGREB, Croatia

American diplomats are hoping the NATO air war over Bosnia-Herzegovina will translate into success at the negotiating table, despite risks that hardened Serb defiance could spoil what may many regard as the best chance to end Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II.

"Of course they (air raids) strengthen our hand," Richard Holbrooke, the chief U.S. negotiator and assistant secretary of state, said Thursday.

Although Holbrooke sought to emphasize that the military campaign was independent of diplomatic efforts, it clearly has transformed the dynamics of the peace process. Until this week, attempts to win concessions from the Serbs had never been backed with significant force.

Fears that regional power broker Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, would boycott talks in the wake of the air raids have not materialized. Instead, Milosevic made a point of having a leisurely lunch and long meetings with Holbrooke Wednesday, even as NATO dropped tons of explosives on Milosevic's Bosnian Serb brothers.

There have been other signs of Serb flexibility in the last 48 hours, including vaguely conciliatory statements by some Bosnian Serb leaders and an agreement to permit Milosevic to negotiate on behalf of all Serbs.

The Serb accord, contained in a document released in Belgrade, was reached on the eve of the air strikes and described as a "breakthrough" by U.S. officials.

In Washington, State Department Spokesman Nicholas Burns hailed the pledge by Milosevic to organize a joint Serb negotiating team as "an important procedural breakthrough for peace."

"But," Burns quickly added, "let there be no mistake: The road to peace will be long and difficult. "

Here in Zagreb, Holbrooke assessed the Serb accord this way: "Up until that piece of paper, we couldn't sit and talk about the map (of Bosnian territory) or the future. Now we can."

Attacking the Serbs has often backfired by causing them to dig in. In their view, the international community has taken the side of their Muslim enemies, eliminating any authority the United Nations or NATO might have.

"At last we have shown our resolve," said a European diplomat. "But it can go too far. The use of force is not to defeat a people but to get them to the negotiating table. What we need now is a pause to let the Serbs contemplate their future."

The U.S. peace initiative stands a better chance now for some of the same reasons the allies finally decided they could take decisive action now: The reality on the Balkans battlefield, and in the region's politics, has changed substantially in just the last several weeks.

"If I were Milosevic, with the problems I'd had with (Bosnian Serb leaders), I would be privately rubbing my hands in glee over the air strikes," said a European diplomat. "But the flip side is that each attack on Serbs makes Milosevic's own domestic position more difficult. Politically, he has his own back to watch."