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Bosnian Factions Agree to Ceasefire, Peace Talks

By Michael Dobbs
The Washington Post

Prodded by the Clinton administration, the warring factions in Bosnia Thursday agreed to a nationwide cease-fire and Camp David-style peace talks in the United States as a step toward ending their brutal 42-month-old conflict.

The cease-fire agreement will take effect at one minute after midnight on Oct. 10, provided that full gas and electricity supplies have been restored to the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, which has been under siege by Serb separatist forces since the beginning of the war. The American-sponsored peace talks are scheduled to begin at the end of October, to be followed by a full-scale peace conference in Paris.

Thursday's eight-point agreement between the Muslim led Bosnian government and the Serbs capped two months of intensive diplomatic effort by the United States to find a negotiated solution to the worst fighting in Europe since World War II. Earlier this month, the two sides agreed to a set of constitutional principles that provide for a common Bosnian parliament and presidency but effectively confirm the division of the country along ethnic lines.

The final details in the agreement were hammered out overnight following a day of exhausting shuttle diplomacy that involved negotiations in both Sarajevo and the Serbian capital of Belgrade by an American team headed by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke. According to U.S. officials, it was made possible by a last-minute change of heart by the Bosnian government, which hat earlier been holding out for greater concessions from the Bosnian Serbs but experienced some significant military reverses this week.

Holbrooke said in a telephone interview that he told Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic in Sarajevo on Monday that he was "playing craps with the destiny of his country" because he was still hesitating about signing on to an immediate cease-fire.

The United States helped to level the battlefield in favor of the Bosnian government at the end of August by leading its NATO allies in staging a series of air strikes on Bosnian Serb positions. The air strikes were called off two weeks later after the Bosnian Serbs agreed to pull heavy weapons out of a 12-mile exclusion zone around Sarajevo, and relax their siege of the capital.

Holbrooke secured Izetbegovic's agreement in principle to the U.S.-drafted document when he returned to Sarajevo on Wednesday. He then flew to Belgrade for a six-hour negotiating session with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Four hours later, Milosevic informed Holbrooke that he had persuaded Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to sign the agreement.

Speaking to reporters in Sarajevo, Izetbegovic described the cease-fire as "a serious agreement" that would be respected by all sides.

U.S. officials said they expected Izetbegovic and Milosevic to lead their countries' delegations to the U.S.-sponsored peace talks later this month. Croatian President Franjo Tudjman is also expected to attend, but the level of Bosnian Serb representation is not clear. Karadzic and Mladic would run the risk of arrest if they came to the United States, as they have been indicted by an international tribunal in The Hague for war crimes.

U.S. officials expect the peace talks to follow a pattern similar to that of the 10-day Camp David session, hosted by President Carter in 1978, which led to a preliminary accord between Egypt and Israel on the return of the Sinai desert. They will take place in a secluded location, away from reporters with U.S. officials shuttling among the different delegations and occasional face-to-face talks.

The major difference from Camp David is that there are no plans for a prominent role for Clinton, who has so far steered clear of direct public involvement in the Bosnian peace process. Even though Clinton has gone before television cameras to announce the latest diplomatic successes, he still seems wary of identifying himself too closely with the still uncertain outcome of the Bosnian peace talks.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said that the peace talks would be co-chaired by Holbrooke, European negotiator Carl Bildt, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. U.S. officials are eager to give the Europeans a prominent role in the talks, as the European Union will be expected to pay a large share of the bill for postwar reconstruction in Bosnia.

The key issues to be worked out in peace talks include a territorial division of Bosnia between the Bosnian-Croat federation and the "Srpska Republika," or Serb Republic. The two sides have agreed to a 51 percent-49 percent split, but there are likely to be land swaps to provide the Bosnian government with better access to Sarajevo and Gorazde, and to facilitate communications between Serb-held territory in eastern and northwestern Bosnia.