BRITAIN and France yesterday mounted a high-profile bid to convince Bosnia's warring factions to accept an international peace plan, billed as the last opportunity to end the 27-month-old conflict.
As British and French foreign ministers, Douglas Hurd and Alain Juppe, traveled to Bosnia-Herzegovina for talks with representatives of the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serbs, they warned that a wider and bloodier war in the Balkans could break out if the ``take it or leave it'' proposal is rejected.
The five-nation ``contact group'' - made up of the United States, Russia, France, Germany, and Britain - has given the Bosnian parties until July 19 to accept its peace proposal, which divides the country almost equally between the Muslim-Croat alliance and the Serbs. Neither side seems likely to give it unreserved backing, despite intense international pressure directed mainly at the Bosnian Serbs and their patrons in Belgrade, Serbia.
US envoy Charles Redman said world powers expected ``clear-cut'' answers by next week's deadline, but diplomatic sources believe the factions will hedge their responses. ``Given the diplomatic pressures building, neither side can afford to be seen to say no to the peace plan,'' says a United Nations's official in Sarajevo. ``Each side in its own way will say yes but mean no.''
For Muslim-Croat leaders, the partition map giving them 51 percent of territory and the Serbs the rest is an unsatisfactory settlement. They claim to need more land to make their state viable.
Bosnian government troops, emboldened by fresh arms supplies, seem poised to claw back captured ground. At present, a peace treaty is the last thing they want, diplomats say.
But it appears the prospect of losing worldwide sympathy for their cause, and reconstruction aid for their shattered country, is likely to prompt the Sarajevo leadership to grudgingly accept the peace plan, but attach at least some qualifications, Western observers predict.
Bosnian Serb leaders say the present partition map is unacceptable because it requires them to return more than one-third of their conquered territory and whittles away a strategic land corridor in the north to no more than a road. They also strongly object to the proposal ceding towns and cities to the Muslim-Croat federation and leaving them mostly countryside and mountains.
But the consequences of rejecting the peace deal are far more grave for the Serbs. International mediators would seek to lift the arms embargo to benifit the Muslims and toughen UN sanctions against Belgrade that have contributed to the collapse of the Serbian economy.
In addition to these threats, Belgrade is pressuring its allies to accept the peace plan in the hope of getting the embargo lifted. The contact group has pledged to end the two-year trade blockade if the Bosnian Serbs sign.
OVER the past week, Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic has coaxed, urged, and even blackmailed them to do so, anxious to avert the kind of defiance that sank the Vance-Owen peace plan early last year. Then, the Bosnian Serbs voted unanimously against a proposal to divide the war-torn republic into 10 semiautonomous provinces, despite the threat of Western airstrikes.
Mr. Milosevic maintains his allies have achieved what they set out to do: establish their own state on the road to a ``Greater Serbia'' - a union of Serb-held territories. He insists they must now be prepared to make concessions to end the international isolation of Serbs outside of Bosnia.
According to diplomats and local political commentators, a widening rift is emerging between Belgrade and the Bosnian Serbs over the peace plan, with the latter concerned that their long-time supporter and arms supplier is prepared to sell them out in order to get sanctions lifted.
``The strain of economic sanctions, no matter how devastating they are, cannot be compared to the supreme sacrifice we have made in liberating Serbian lands,'' said the speaker of the self-declared Bosnian Serb parliament, Momcilo Krajisnik.
Both UN and diplomatic sources believe that while the warring factions may accept the peace deal they will pose so many questions and conditions that no clear decision will ever be made. International officials envisage protracted negotiations over the plan set against a backdrop of low-intensity fighting.