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Great Powers Prepare Options As Bosnian Serbs Deliver Vote

By Jonathan S. LandaySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 20, 1994



ZAGREB, CROATIA

THE self-styled Bosnian Serb assembly voted July 19 on whether to accept the new international peace plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina, but declined to reveal the decision.

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``The decision will be announced in two days' time in Geneva,'' Aleksa Buha, the self-styled Bosnian Serb foreign minister, said after the meeting at a machinery factory in the Bosnian Serb headquarters of Pale, 10 miles east of Sarajevo.

The vote came on the second day of a debate by the Bosnian Serb political and military hierarchy on whether to accept the plan drafted by the ``contact group'' mediators from the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany.

``The Bosnian Serb parliament yesterday and today has adopted a decision that is in this envelope, and which will be submitted to the contact group,'' Miroslav Toholj, the self-styled Bosnian Serb information minister, told reporters. ``I'm afraid I cannot tell you any more.''

The contact group had given the warring factions until July 19 to approve the plan to partition Bosnia roughly in half between the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-Croat federation. The Sarajevo area would be placed under international administration.

Muslim and Croat deputies of the Bosnian parliament on July 18 endorsed the proposal and senior federation leaders departed July 19 for Geneva, where they were to present a formal response to the contact group on July 20.

Bosnian Serb leaders were expected to travel first to Belgrade for talks with their chief patron, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, before flying to Geneva for a separate meeting on July 20 with the mediators.

The peace plan would force the Bosnian Serbs to relinquish about one-third of the 72 percent of Bosnia they overran in ``ethnic cleansing'' conquests launched in late March 1992, after Muslim and Croat politicians opted for independence from former Yugoslavia.

An estimated 200,000 people have been killed and some 2 million driven from their homes in Europe's worst bloodshed since World War II.

The Bosnian Serbs would also have to forget, at least initially, their goal of uniting in a ``Greater Serbia'' with the Serb-dominated rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro and minority Serb rebel-held areas of Croatia.

Hard-line nationalists who dominate the Bosnian Serb civilian and military leadership and most ordinary Bosnian Serbs vehemently oppose surrendering any territory or abandoning their dream of a ``union of all Serb lands.''

Prior to the vote, there were strong hints that the self-styled Bosnian Serb parliament was framing a response to the contact group that was not an outright rejection of the peace plan by offering acceptance if a number of conditions were met.

``The problem is that the Serbs are very sensitive to the language,'' Nikola Koljevic, the self-styled Bosnian Serb vice president, told reporters during a break in the debate. ``They would like to accept, but not use the word `accept.' ''

But the contact group has warned that the plan is not negotiable, and the Bosnian Serbs would face punitive measures should they fail to give it their unqualified approval.

The measures would include tighter United Nations sanctions slapped on rump Yugoslavia in May 1992 for supporting the Bosnian Serb land-grab. In addition, the UN and NATO could expand and step up enforcement of Muslim-dominated UN-protected areas, and Sarajevo could be granted an exemption from a UN arms embargo imposed on all six former Yugoslav republics in 1991.

Despite bellicose and uncompromising rhetoric that marked the two-day Bosnian Serb debate, Western diplomats and UN officials anticipated a formal response tying acceptance of the plan to conditions.

These were expected to include demands for further negotiations on the outlines of the contact-group map and a constitutional setup that would allow Bosnian Serb areas to unite with rump Yugoslavia.

Such a response, analysts say, would be aimed at preserving the Bosnian Serbs' claims to wanting peace, placating hard-liners who favored outright rejection, and appeasing Mr. Milosevic, who wants the UN sanctions lifted.

At the same time, these analysts say, conditional acceptance could also be intended to sow renewed discord within the contact group, thereby buying time for the Bosnian Serbs.

Russia might well favor the offer of further negotiations because it opposes additional Western military involvement in Bosnia and the lifting of the arms embargo on Sarajevo.

Analysts say the US, meanwhile, favors fast implementation of the punitive measures.

France and Britain are hesitant to lift the arms embargo, because it would force them to withdraw troops making up the vanguard of the 20,000-man UN contingent in Bosnia, raising the prospect of renewed all-out warfare.

Western diplomats and UN officials warn that a decision by the contact-group countries on implementing the punitive measures should be reached quickly, or there is a risk that the entire initiative could lapse into the feuding and inertia that contributed to the failure of two previous international peace proposals.