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Serb-Croat Peace Talks Continue, Despite Indications of Collapse

By Norman Kempster
Los Angeles Times

Ignoring their own deadline, U.S. mediators kept the leaders of Bosnia's warring factions talking Monday despite indications that the 20-day-old Balkan peace conference is heading for failure.

A senior Bosnian government official said there was more than a 99 percent likelihood that the negotiations will end without an agreement to end Europe's bloodiest war in a half century. The official said the talks foundered because of excessive territorial demands by the Bosnian Serbs.

The official said that the talks came tantalizingly close to agreement but then unraveled.

A Serb representative agreed that the talks were near collapse and blamed the Croats.

By early evening, the Serb delegation was loading baggage on its aircraft, apparently in preparation for leaving Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton.

U.S. State Department spokes-man Nicholas Burns insisted that the talks were continuing and that success was still a possibility, although far from guaranteed.

Burns dismissed the activities around the Serb aircraft as diplomatic theater.

"It looked like the jet was being fueled, but President (Slobodan) Milosevic was there negotiating," Burns said.

Nevertheless, Burns said that if the Dayton talks fail, the United States, the European Union and Russia will look for ways to restart the peace process.

"There will be options to continue the talks elsewhere," he said.

Confusion swirled around the talks more than eight hours after expiration of a 10 a.m. deadline, which Secretary of State Warren Christopher imposed Sunday.

By setting the deadline, Christopher touched off a marathon day of negotiations that lasted for 22 hours, ending at 5:30 a.m. Monday when exhausted bargainers knocked off for a couple of hours of sleep and a shower. The talks resumed about 8 a.m.

Burns insisted Sunday that the deadline was a firm one and that the U.S. sponsors would make a public announcement at 10 a.m. Monday regardless of the situation at the time. If agreement was reached, he said, the treaty would be initialed. If not, delegates would explain the reasons for their failure.

But a senior U.S. official admitted Monday that things were never that cut-and-dried. The official said the deadline was a negotiating ploy, designed to force the factions into making painful decisions.

The official said the deadline "concentrated the minds and the energies of the delegations. If there hadn't been a deadline, they wouldn't have gone until 5:30 a.m., I can tell you that."

But by nightfall Monday, Burns said the mediators had decided to keep the talks going as long as there was a chance for success.

"Each of these three countries seems to want peace," Burns said. "As long as there is a chance to make peace, we will be there with them."

As has been the case throughout the 20-day conference, the sticking point Monday was division of the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina between the Muslim-Croat federation and the Bosnian Serbs. The sides agreed in September to give 51 percent of the territory to the federation and 49 percent to the Serbs but there was no decision at that time on how to split the territory within those guidelines.

The hottest dispute surrounded the strategic Posivina corridor, which links Serb-held land in Bosnia with Serbia. The Bosnian Serbs want to widen the corridor, which runs though land where Bosnian Croats have lived for generations. Any widening of the corridor would require the Bosnian Croats to withdraw from territory they currently hold.

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The senior Bosnian official said the Serbs insisted on concessions in the corridor that were clearly unreasonable. The Serbs said they thought they had an agreement to widen the corridor but the Croats reneged at the last minute.

Bosnian Serbs captured a narrow strip of land through Posivina at the beginning of the war in 1992 and "ethnically cleansed" it of non-Serbs in some of the war's most infamous atrocities.

A White House official said President Clinton telephoned Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to urge him to intensify efforts to break the impasse.