THE Muslim-dominated Bosnian parliament yesterday accepted the principle of dividing Bosnia-Herzegovina along ethnic lines, but rejected the map now contained in the peace plan.
The vote effectively represented a tradeoff designed to keep the peace negotiations alive, while placing the onus for averting an upsurge in fighting on the Bosnian Serbs and the international mediators, Lord David Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has ruled out any further territorial concessions other than those he has made in the current map outlining the partition of Bosnia into a loose union of Muslim, Serb, and Croat ministates.
The prospects for peace remain bleak, as all sides confront a potential humanitarian catastrophe this winter because of food and fuel shortfalls.
The Bosnian parliament's decision came on the second day of a session called in Sarajevo to decide whether the government of President Alija Izetbegovic should sign the plan brokered in Geneva.
Voting behind closed doors, the Muslim-dominated remnants of the legislature agreed for the first time to accept the principle of ethnic partition. But it withheld an endorsement of the peace plan's cornerstone: the map outlining the boundaries of the proposed ministates.
The parliament demanded that the Bosnian Serbs return Muslim-dominated areas they seized by force and ``ethnically cleansed'' of hundreds of thousands of people in their campaign to secure a self-declared state, which they proclaimed in January 1992.
Mr. Karadzic's forces have overrun roughly 70 percent of the republic with arms and finances from President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, who seeks to unite his republic and Montenegro with Serb-held areas of Bosnia and Croatia.
As the peace plan now stands, 52 percent of Bosnia's territory would go to the Bosnian Serbs, who constituted 32 percent of the pre-war population of 4.3 million; 30 percent would be awarded to a ministate that in theory would seek to preserve Bosnia's former multiethnic society by allowing tens of thousands of loyal Serbs and Croats to remain.
But in reality, that ministate would be overwhelmingly dominated by Muslims, who made up 41 percent of the pre-war population. The Bosnian Croats, who made up 17 percent of the pre-war population, would get 17 percent of Bosnia.
Acceptance by Lord Owen and Mr. Stoltenberg of the idea of ethnic partition helped destroy an alliance between the Muslims and Bosnian Croats, who this spring followed the Bosnian Serbs' lead in trying to conquer their own self-declared republic with Croatia's backing.
Fierce Muslim-Croat fighting continues, although Bosnian Serb forces have been reined in while Owen and Stoltenberg seek to clinch an agreement on the latest peace plan.
The Muslims, indulging in some of the same brutality as their rivals, have suffered the worst of the war. They lack outside patrons and have clung to hopes of intervention by the Western states.
The Bosnian parliament's decision mirrored that of the day before by a gathering of Muslim politicians, intellectuals, and religious leaders, and reflected a dilemma that has divided the community's leadership.
Mr. Izetbegovic said the choice was whether to ``continue an unjust war or accept an unjust peace.''
On one side, hard-line Muslim nationalists believe they should accept any deal that halts genocide against their community and allows for the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Opponents, however, say such an accord would legitimize the use of force and ethnic cleansing, and that fighting will continue whether the peace plan is signed or not. They also contend that the Muslim state outlined under the plan would be unviable, because it would be sandwiched between hostile Serb and Croat states, which could at any time cut off access to the outside world, thereby maintaining a stranglehold on its economic life.
The half-step toward acquiesing on partition appears based on a widely held view that the Bosnian Serbs are themselves under enormous pressure to find a way to end the war.
Economic hardships are mounting across the devastated tracts of territory held by the Bosnian Serbs, fueling disenchantment with Karadzic that is expected to grow with winter.
Earlier this month, troops angered by low pay, poor living conditions, and war-profiteering seized control of the northern city of Banja Luka in a mutiny that took Karadzic a week to end.
More importantly, he is believed to be under enormous pressure from Milosevic, who appears increasingly desperate to stop the war and obtain a lifting of UN sanctions imposed on Serbia and Montenegro for supporting the Bosnian Serbs.