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Balkan Leaders Approach Pact to End War in Bosnia

By Michael Dobbs
The Washington Post
DAYTON, Ohio

Balkan leaders in peace talks here are close to reaching a comprehensive agreement on ending the 3{ year war in Bosnia, and on dividing territory and political power among the country's warring factions, participants said Thursday.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, the only man officially authorized to issue statements about the negotiations, confirmed that significant progress had occurred since a visit here Tuesday by Secretary of State Warren Christopher. But he denied that a deal had been wrapped up.

"We are not there yet. Significant challenges remain. We cannot yet say that an agreement is within reach," Burns said.

Nevertheless, hopes for an early breakthrough were bolstered by news that senior Clinton administration officials were converging on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where leaders from the former Yugoslavia have been holed up with U.S. and European negotiators for the past two weeks.

President Clinton's National Security Adviser Anthony Lake flew here Thursday evening for separate meetings with the leaders of the Moslem, Serbian, and Croat delegations. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry plans to arrive Friday for talks that are likely to center on implementation of a peace agreement, which will involve the deployment of as many as 60,000 NATO troops, including some 20,000 Americans.

And the State Department confirmed that Christopher will be back in Dayton on Friday evening, after cutting short a visit to Japan.

"We are likely to wrap this thing up in a couple of days," said one participant in the talks, expressing confidence that an agreement can be initialed soon after Christopher's return.

The emerging agreement is a package deal that will preserve Bosnia as a unified state in theory, while effectively dividing the country almost equally into separate entities controlled by a Moslem-Croat federation and the Bosnian Serbs. Sources close to the talks said that the capital Sarajevo is likely to be given a special status, as a unified city divided into approximately ten districts, each with the power to control its own affairs.

The latest progress follows 16 days of tense negotiations, during which the rival delegations argued heatedly over constitutional and territorial issues. The Moslem-led Bosnian government fought for a solution that would emphasize the political links between the two halves of Bosnia, while the Bosnian Serbs insisted on almost complete separation of their mini-state, known as "Republika Srpska" or the Serb Republic.

The outline agreement now on the table for final approval is a carefully constructed compromise that contains elements that will dissatisfy constitutional purists on both sides. The leader of the three-man Bosnian Serb delegation, Nikola Koljevic, is said to be "depressed" by the latest developments. Some Moslem delegates are expressing concern that the draft Bosnian constitution is so riddled with qualifications and escape clauses that it may prove to be unworkable.

"It is an odd kind of marriage contract," said a source close to the Bosnian government delegation. "One side is saying that it wants to get married, but the other side says that it is not at all sure."

Sources close to the talks said that Christopher's 14-hour visit Tuesday had helped to break the deadlock between the delegations. The following day, the chief American negotiator, Richard C. Holbrooke, held lengthy meetings with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, who have emerged as the two key players.

Following these meetings, the U.S. delegation circulated a compromise version of the draft constitution, in an attempt to bridge the gap. The draft appears to be broadly acceptable to both delegations, although the Bosnian government would like to introduce more specific language on the need for all parties to cooperate with the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Sources close to the talks said that the future map of Bosnia is likely to follow the existing military demarcation line between the rival armies. Changes will be made, however, to reflect the special status of Sarajevo and the Bosnian Serbs' desire to have a secure corridor linking their territories in western and eastern Bosnia.