ZAGREB, CROATIA — THE United States is trying to lure Croatia into pressuring its Bosnian proxies to accept a rapprochement with the Muslim-led Bosnian government, Western diplomatic and Croatian officials said yesterday.
``We are offering Croatia the world if they reverse their policy in Bosnia,'' a Western diplomatic source says.
Although specifics have not been discussed, the ``world'' could mean anything from integration with the European Union and Partnership for Peace to international loans and other reconstruction packages.
In what may be the first step toward a peace settlement, Bosnian Muslim and Croat forces agreed yesterday to a general cease-fire in central and southwest Bosnia to begin at noon today.
Western diplomats hope that Croatia, suffering from a war-drained economy and an ailing image abroad resulting directly from their support of the Bosnian Croat militia (HVO), will find the offer irresistible and pressure the Bosnian Croats to accept.
What the US is trying to achieve is ambitious: Washington suggests that the Bosnian Croat and Muslim communities in Bosnia form a union that would be considered a separate entity with its own seat in the United Nations, its own army, foreign policy, and currency.
The union itself would be offered the incentives, but if it forms a confederation with Croatia, that country would reap the diplomatic benefits as well.
The offer marks a distinct change in US policy that has up until now tried to pressure the Zagreb government into reversing its policy in Bosnia with the threat of sanctions. But the agreement would require Croatia to reverse its policy toward Bosnia and abandon its goals for a ``Greater Croatia.''
Officially Croatia supports the territorial integrity of Bosnia, but has secretly funneled up to 10,000 Croatian troops into the republic to bolster the HVO's war effort, according to Western diplomats and UN officials.
But both sides will have a hard time digesting the deal. For the Bosnian Muslims, being swallowed up within a larger Croat confederation would leave them in the minority.
To address that issue, the Bosnian union would be considered a separate entity with a strong central government. But Bosnian Croats and the Croatian government are asking that distinct lines be drawn - at least temporarily - within a Bosnian union made up of two or more autonomous republics.
``The fundamental issue is how much autonomy is provided to the Bosnian Croats within the union,'' the diplomat says.
Too much blood has been shed in the fighting, the Croatian government official says, to bring the two sides together immediately. ``There has been fierce fighting, and there is a lot of hate in the air. If we are to preserve something for the future, we should be separated for a while, at least until the dust settles.''
But diplomats worry that any temporary lines drawn within the proposed Bosnian union would eventually become permanent and could lead to the secession of the Bosnian Croat community and its annexation with Croatia. The Bosnian government says this would be unacceptable.
``Accepting this plan would mean Croatia would have to abandon the idea of a Greater Croatia.... The Bosnian Muslim and Croat union would have to remain within Bosnia's borders albeit connected with Croatia,'' the Western diplomat says.
``Croats will view this as a grave injustice,'' says Zoran Bosnjak, chief political adviser to Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic.
``Why should Bosnian Croats be forced to stay in a union with the Muslims, while the Bosnian Serbs - the chief villains here - get to join a `Greater Serbia,' '' Mr. Bosnjak says.
Bosnian Muslim and Serb leaders have already signed an agreement to allow the Serbs to separate after a referendum is held in the Serb-held area of Bosnia. But territorial disputes remain over eight towns, which had large Muslim populations before the Serbs embarked on their ``ethnic cleansing'' campaign.
Bosnian Croat and Muslim forces were originally allied against the Serbs, but split just over a year ago when the HVO forces demanded that Muslim-led Bosnian troops come under their control, purged Muslims from the government, and forced thousands of Muslims from their homes.
Since then the Bosnian Croat militia has been fighting with Muslim-led Bosnian government forces in central Bosnia in an effort to carve out their own Bosnian Croat ministate, which would eventually merge with a ``Greater Croatia.''
Despite all the difficulties, diplomatic sources say the response from both sides has been ``positive,'' but they admit there are still ``significant differences'' between the two sides.