AS the Bosnian Army continues to lose territory and the Serbs put the finishing touches on their "ethnic cleansing" campaign against Muslims and Croats, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic is moving grudgingly closer to signing a peace plan he has until now vigorously rejected.
By signing the agreement, Mr. Izetbegovic would be making hefty concessions. Political observers and Bosnian government officials say Serb gains have left him with few other options. But such a move also could isolate the Bosnian Serbs, making them the sole object of Western pressure to sign the plan.
"Izetbegovic's back is up against the wall," says Senada Kreso, spokeswoman for the Bosnian Ministry of Information. "We don't like the maps and the provincialization of Bosnia, but continuing the war just means more bloodshed."
Bosnian Croat leader Mate Boban, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and Izetbegovic, a Muslim, all have agreed to sign the first two portions of the plan proposed by United Nations envoy Cyrus Vance and European Community envoy Lord David Owen. These two parts call for the recognition of Bosnia as an independent state and demobilization of the three armies.
But only Mr. Boban has signed the third and stickiest part of the plan, which proposes dividing the republic into 10 semi- autonomous regions, leaving the Muslims, who make up 44 percent of the population, with the least land proportionally.
"The peace option should be followed because we just don't have the strength to continue anymore," Izetbegovic told Oslobodjenje, Bosnia's only functioning newspaper, before heading to the United States last week for a meeting with Vice President Al Gore Jr. and peace talks in New York. "If we are to agree on a settlement we should do it now rather than later."
Cerska, a Muslim-dominated pocket in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina, fell to Serb forces last week and UN observers say the rest of the region is under continuing Serb assaults.
"The Serbs have been amassing troops in the region, and I'm afraid they have the means necessary to take the whole area," said French Gen. Philippe Morillon, commander of the 8,000 UN troops in Bosnia. The Serbs control about 65 percent of Bosnia while Muslims tenuously hold one-tenth of the land.
General Morillon said the fall of Cerska has pushed Muslims into neighboring Srebrenica, a town whose population has swelled to 60,000, double what it was before the war. Yesterday, Serb forces reportedly broke through a Muslim blockade at Srebrenica.
"The Serbs have just decided to empty the area," Morillon said. "There are some of the weakest and most elderly people in Srebrenica that are really dying from hunger. They are in desperate need of flour, salt, and medical supplies," he added. "There are only Serb soldiers roaming the streets of the town now."
Responding to the desperate reports from eastern Bosnia, Sefer Halilovic, commander of the Bosnian Army, issued a command for troops to attack Serb supply lines and reinforce defense positions in the Cerska region, but that counteroffensive has proved ineffective against Serb advances.
Meanwhile, Serb forces continued to block a UN convoy attempting to reach and evacuate refugees yesterday.
"Cerska fell because our troops in the area were hungry, tired, and had no amunition" Izetbegovic said Monday in Sarajevo after returning from the talks in New York. "The same destiny awaits Brcko, Olovo, Maglaj, Gradicac [other towns in the northeast of the republic under constant attack] and eventually Sarajevo."
More than 2 million people have fled their homes, creating Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II. Most are victims of "ethnic cleansing," a veiled expression first used by the Serbs to describe the forced expulsions of non-Serbs by such methods as murder, intimidation, and terrorism.
There is a constant flow of non-Serb civilians, many forced at gunpoint, from Serb-held northern Bosnia across the front lines into Muslim-held towns in Central Bosnia, according to Tony Land, spokesman for the UN refugee relief organization.
Izetbegovic faces a military and political leadership increasingly divided over what to do when talks resume in New York. "There has been quite a fight going on within the presidency. Everyone has their own opinion on the borders and the territory," Ms. Kreso says. "The big question is, will he and should he sign?"
Meanwhile, President Clinton and the European Community are considering tightening sanctions against Serbia and possibly using ground troops to enforce the Vance-Owen plan.
For many Bosnians, however, such Western debates offer little comfort. "We counted on the morality of the West for help, but Bosnia seems remote and far away and now we realize it's just not going to happen," a high-ranking Bosnian official says.
As atrocities mounted in Bosnia, Izetbegovic had hoped that the international community would ultimately intervene. But that never happened, and the UN, worried about an escalation of the fighting, continually denied appeals to lift the arms embargo for Bosnia's Muslims.
Izetbegovic said he still wants to negotiate the Vance-Owen borders. But "when I voiced my opposition to the map the response was given over and over again that [Mr. Vance and Lord Owen] cannot change it," he said.
"We certainly won't be happy to see the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina," says Gordana Knezovic, political editor at Oslobodjenje. "But generally most people just want this war to be stopped somehow." Kreso is more blunt: "Each day [Izetbegovic] waits, the more people die."