UNITED Nations envoy Cyrus Vance waited until he left Belgrade before admitting what had been apparent when he and European Community mediator Lord David Owen emerged from talks with communist President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.
"There was no new progress," Vance told reporters on arrival in the Croatian capital of Zagreb.
Following the four-hour meeting, Mr. Milosevic gave a clue as to the outcome, saying: "It is completely clear that ... the interests of the Serbian people must be treated equally."
If there was still a question over Serbia's stance on the proposal, it was answered by Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic in a venomous attack launched against the United States and the EC two hours after Vance and Owen departed Belgrade.
Their plan, Mr. Cosic said in a nationally televised address on the eve of Serbian Orthodox Christmas, was an "ultimatum-like concept" backed by a threat of an "air force and rocket assault by the US and NATO. Acceptance of this concept will turn Bosnia into a permanent and genocidal jihad-like battlefield."
The lack of progress in Wednesday's discussions with the chief architect of the Serbian territorial conquests in Bosnia-Herzegovina leaves little hope for a new Vance-Owen peace plan when the latest round of the deadlocked Geneva peace conference resumes on Sunday.
Should negotiations remain stalled, international impatience would likely force the two co-chairmen to suspend the conference and defer to the UN Security Council for further action.
With pressure growing for firmer steps to halt the war, the Security Council is likely to authorize military intervention in the form of enforcing a UN-decreed "no fly" zone that has been repeatedly violated by Serbian planes.
While disagreement is widespread over the usefulness and consequences of such a step, no alternatives are being given much consideration.
"Things look very bad for Sunday," says a Western diplomat. "If the talks collapse, Vance and Owen would have failed and the conditions in Bosnia ... will have become worse. That will strengthen the position of people who will argue for a different way of dealing with the problem."
Fred Eckhard, the chief spokesman for Mr. Vance and Lord Owen, says: "There was a postponement of debate at the Security Council in order to get these talks through this crucial round. So, everything is now on the table."
The mediators had hoped to resolve with Milosevic the key issue on which the Geneva conference stalled on Monday: Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's demand for acceptance of the self-declared state that his forces have overrun on 70 percent of the former Yugoslav republic of Muslim Slavs, Orthodox Serbs, and Roman Catholic Croats.
The new Vance-Owen plan rules out such a "state within a state," its central pillar being the preservation of Bosnia-Herzegovina's territorial integrity and independence. Acceptance of the principle would derail Milosevic's ultimate goal of joining Karadzic's so-called "Serbian Republic" with Serb-captured areas of neighboring Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro in a "Greater Serbia" superstate.
To abandon that centuries-old dream would be political suicide for both Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb proxies. For it is on the altar of Serbian "unity" that all their power and authority rest.
The Vance-Owen plan would divide Bosnia-Herzegovina into 10 largely autonomous provinces. Each ethnic group would have provinces in which it would be predominant, thereby preventing a concentration of national power in the hands of one group.
The plan and a demilitarization proposal were accepted without objections by Bosnian Croat leader Mate Boban.
Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim Slav, agreed with the main principles. But he called for negotiations on the proposed map of the provincial boundaries, contending that Vance and Owen would give too much territory to the Serbs. Mr. Karadzic rejected all of the main components.
Vance and Owen, hoping to keep the conference alive and avoid losing the initiative to proponents of military intervention, adjourned the talks until Sunday to give Karadzic time for consultations at home.
Karadzic, however, has shown no sign of compromise.
"We will accept nothing short of the Serbian state unit within Bosnia. Bosnia as one state is unacceptable," he declared.
Karadzic is expected to use his breathing room to execute a new maneuver intended to deflect from the Serbs international blame and condemnation for any eventual collapse of the talks.
The self-styled legislature of Karadzic's unrecognized "state" was expected to convene today amid calls that it submit the Vance-Owen plan to a referendum among Bosnian Serbs.
"We need consultations in the assembly of the Serbian Republic," said Nikola Koljevic, Karadzic's self-styled vice president. "My personal opinion is that nobody from the present leadership has any right to sign the proposal. I favor a referendum of the people."
Armed with such a decision, Karadzic could return to Geneva on Sunday and explain that he was unable to make any kind of commitment until the outcome of the referendum, which would almost certainly reject the Vance-Owen plan.
"That," said the Western diplomat, "would make it very much easier for Karadzic to say no."