WITH the NATO deadline for airstrikes approaching, countries with a direct and urgent interest in ending the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina have launched a new peace initiative that involves Russia in the Geneva negotiations for the first time.
After high-level meetings in London April 25-26, a new ``contact group'' of officials representing the United States, Russia, the 12-nation European Union, and the United Nations set its sights on persuading the warring factions to accept a new peace plan based on revised maps of the former Yugoslavia.
Under the new initiative, which a senior British official said marked ``a highly significant departure in the search for a settlement,'' the United States will focus on bringing the Bosnian Muslims back to the negotiating table, and Russia will put pressure on the Serbs to return a significant portion of the territory they have taken by military force in the two-year war.
``We want to make sure we are working in close harmony,'' said US Secretary of State Warren Christopher at a London press conference April 26.
The establishment of the contact group came just two days before the April 27 NATO deadline requiring the Bosnian Serbs to withdraw their heavy weapons from a 12.5-mile zone around the besieged enclave of Gorazde or face a new round of airstrikes.
With the deadline only hours away, Mr. Christopher said the Serbs had yet to satisfy the terms of the deadline. Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, the UN commander in Bosnia, briefed NATO chiefs April 26 on the military situation in and around Gorazde.
The Bosnian Serbs, who launched a three-week assault on Gorazde, which was designated last year as a UN ``safe area,'' reportedly were allowing relief convoys into the city April 26. At press time airstrikes appeared unlikely.
First steps in the setting up of the contact group were taken April 25 at meetings here involving Prime Minister John Major, British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, Secretary Christoper, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, and the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Churkin.
Mr. Churkin said the next two weeks would witness ``very intensive'' efforts to promote a cease-fire lasting four months, during which a full settlement would be sought. The contact group is planning to send a representative to Bosnia to resume talks with the parties to the conflict, British sources said.
The group's broad aim, according to a British official, would be to allow time for tempers to cool and for EU mediator Lord David Owen and his UN counterpart, Thorvald Stoltenberg, to rework peace plans based on maps of the former Yugoslavia.
Mr. Christopher said the contact group would be ``a step down the road'' to a summit conference on Bosnia.
A British source acknowledged that the decision to form the group arose from ``a well-founded belief'' that the parties to the Bosnian conflict had ``exploited differences of approach'' between outside countries, and between the UN and NATO.
A particularly important aspect of Churkin's contribution to the London talks had been his readiness to back the NATO-UN ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs, diplomatic sources said.
President Boris Yeltsin faced pressure from right-wing Russian politicians to resist allied threats to punish the Bosnian Serbs, Russia's longtime friends, but Churkin appeared to be unaffected by the pressures, British diplomats said.
Mr. Hurd said the contact group would produce a more coordinated search for a total cessation of hostilities and a negotiated peace settlement.
A settlement must include a ``very substantial'' withdrawal by the Serbs from the land they acquired by force, he added.
One of Hurd's officials said the contact group would focus on the ``nitty-gritty'' of a cease-fire and try to ensure that the ``allies pull together, and don't pull apart.''
At the April 25 talks Christopher was reported to have lifted US obstacles to the financing of 10,000 extra troops that would be needed to police a lasting cease-fire in Bosnia. British sources said Churkin's ``helpful atttitude'' raised hopes that Russian peacekeeping troops currently in Sarajevo would be allowed to remain there.
A week earlier there were threats from Moscow that the Russian peacekeepers would be withdrawn if NATO launched air attacks on Gorazde.