BOSNIAN Serb leaders yesterday appeared set to defy the world's leading powers and reject the new peace plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina, raising the prospects for renewed carnage, a withdrawal of United Nations troops, and an end to international mediation.
``If the international community presses us into a corner and demands a yes or a no from us ... then the reply of our deputies and our people will be no,'' Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said yesterday.
His comments, carried by the Bosnian Serb news agency, SRNA, came a day before the self-styled Bosnian Serb assembly was to vote on the new peace plan drafted by the ``contact group'' of United States, Russian, British, French, and German mediators.
Mr. Karadzic's rhetoric indicated that the Bosnian Serb assembly, dominated by civilian and military hard-liners, would spurn the plan or attach conditions for acceptance, including being given a strip of neighboring Croatia's Adriatic coast.
The contact group has said it would regard a conditional acceptance as a rejection. The group has given the warring factions until tomorrow to accept the plan, which would divide Bosnia almost equally between the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-Croat federation. The Sarajevo region would be placed under international administration.
Muslim and Croat members of the Bosnian Parliament were expected today to reluctantly accept the blueprint.
The plan would force the Bosnian Serbs to relinquish a large amount of the 72 percent of Bosnia they overran and ``ethnically cleansed'' with the backing of Serbia in the 28-month war. They would also have to give up, at least initially, their goal of uniting in a ``Greater Serbia'' with the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro and rebel Serb-held areas of Croatia.
SRNA quoted the self-styled Bosnian Serb Deputy Prime Minister Vitomir Popovic as saying the peace plan ``should be rejected in its entirety'' and ``the Serbian people, as the victors in this war, ... have the right to unite with other Serbian states.''
Karadzic warned that ``a rekindling of the war ... can follow, because our enemies will be well-armed, get air support, and the UN may pull out.''
The new plan represents the third international bid to broker an end to the conflict that has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives since Bosnian Serbs launched their land grab after Muslims and Croats voted to secede from Serb-dominated former Yugoslavia.
The contact group has warned that theirs will be the final international mediation attempt.
But that will pose difficult choices for the contact group that could revive deep frictions among its members, especially between the Western states and Russia.
In case of a Bosnian Serb rejection, the contact group has threatened to tighten UN sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia in May 1992, step up UN and NATO protection of Muslim-dominated UN safe areas, and exempt Sarajevo from a UN arms embargo. But the contact group has yet to announce how it will implement these steps, fueling concerns of a return to the indecision and fumbling that had for so long hindered international diplomacy.
``The time scale is the big question,'' a Western diplomat says. ``If the international community dithers, then we get nowhere.''
That concern was echoed Saturday by Turkish President Suleyman Demirel and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman after talks in Zagreb.
``We have reached a stage where no delay can be tolerated,'' Mr. Tudjman said.
Britain and France say that a lifting of the arms embargo would force them to withdraw troops that form the backbone of the UN contingent in Bosnia. They would likely be followed by Canadian and Spanish troops and possibly the entire UN operation.
Throughout the process, the US would have to keep step with its partners who, despite consensus on the proposed Bosnian map, view Bosnia through different lenses.
A Serbian rejection would also add fuel to a debate in the US over whether to exempt the Bosnian government from the arms embargo. Last month, the House voted to end the embargo on Bosnia in an amendment to a defense authorization bill. A comparable amendment was narrowly defeated in the Senate. The ban could still be lifted legislatively if acceptable language is worked out in a House-Senate conference committee. But if Serbia rejects the peace plan, lawmakers are likely to wait and see how the administration reacts before moving ahead.
In such circumstances, the Bosnian Serbs could renew onslaughts against Sarajevo, where UN troops and NATO warplanes are enforcing a cease-fire and a 12.5-mile heavy weapons exclusion zone, and five other UN safe areas.
A new explosion in Bosnian bloodletting could also trigger renewed fighting in Croatia. Senior NATO and UN commanders discussed contingency plans at a meeting in Zagreb on Saturday.
Western diplomats say Washington is prepared to send weapons to the Muslims and the Croats if the arms embargo on Sarajevo is lifted.
``You could well see American weapons flowing in,'' one Western diplomatic source says.
But arming the Muslim Croat federation could force Russian President Boris Yeltsin to send arms to the Serbs to stave off attacks by pro-Serb, right-wing domestic opponents.
That reason also lies behind Russia's resistance to lifting the arms embargo and using NATO aircraft to tighten enforcement of the UN protected areas.
As for increasing sanctions on rump Yugoslavia, the only real option, analysts say, is to close massive violations by the neighboring states of Hungary, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, and Albania by compensating them for billions of dollars in trade losses.
But there are no signs that the contact-group nations are willing to shell out the huge sums required.
* George Moffett contributed to this report from Washington.