Serb Response Divides Five Powers

Ambiguous rejection of peace plan throws doubt over prospects for punitive measures

DIFFERENCES emerged yesterday between the Western powers and Russia over the Bosnian Serb reply to the new Bosnia-Herzegovina peace plan, raising serious questions about whether they can agree on how to proceed.

While the United States, France, and Germany saw the Bosnian Serbs as spurning the peace plan, Russia insisted that their response offered promise and that further negotiations were warranted.

The US, Russia, France, Germany, and Britain, whose mediators make up the ``contact group'' that drafted the peace plan, had threatened punitive measures should the Bosnian Serbs refuse to accept it.

Contact group foreign ministers are to meet July 30 in Geneva to decide on the measures, which could ultimately include an exemption for the Muslim-Croat federation from a UN arms embargo slapped on the six former Yugoslav republics in 1991.

The different contact group interpretations of the Bosnian Serb response to the plan emerged a day after a declaration containing the stance of the self-styled Bosnian Serb assembly was presented to the international mediators in Geneva.

The declaration, which was approved on Monday but kept secret until yesterday, said the Bosnian Serbs' political and military hierarchy could not take a final decision on the plan, because the contact group had only so far proposed a map for the partition of Bosnia.

The map would divide the republic roughly equally between the Muslim-Croat federation and the Bosnian Serbs, who would have to relinquish about one-third of the estimated 72 percent of Bosnia they have overrun.

The Muslim-Croat federation accepted the map without conditions.

But in their declaration, the Bosnian Serbs said they wanted to know about ``constitutional arrangements,'' a reference to their demand for the right to unite their territories to the adjacent rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro.

Also unknown, the declaration said, is ``the question of Sarajevo,'' which the Bosnian Serbs want divided, and ``the question of access to the sea,'' a reference to their aspirations for a slice of neighboring Croatia's southern Adriatic coastline.

Finally, the declaration sought ``an agreement'' on the lifting of UN sanctions imposed on rump Yugoslavia in May 1992 for its sponsorship of the Bosnian Serb ``ethnic cleansing'' conquests.

The declaration said the Bosnian Serbs were ``committed to a lasting peace'' and that their delegation in Geneva was empowered to negotiate on the outstanding questions.

But Ejup Ganic, the Muslim vice president of the Muslim-Croat federation, ruled out any negotiations, calling on the contact group to implement its threatened punitive actions. ``Serbian fascism cannot be stopped unless the international community takes strong action.... Or it should lift the arms embargo against us,'' Mr. Ganic told reporters in Vienna. ``We expect the international community to seal the borders and take other steps, which I do not want to discuss.''

But Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev was quoted by the Interfax News Agency as saying that the Bosnian Serbs had taken a positive attitude toward the map and that their desire to know other aspects of the peace deal was ``their legitimate wish.''

Earlier, Mr. Kozyrev called the Bosnian Serb response a ``middle ground'' and added that he saw ``room for negotiations.''

US mediator Charles Redman, however, termed the Bosnian Serb response a rejection, and Clinton administration officials in Washington said the question of Bosnia's territorial integrity was not negotiable.

US Defense Secretary William Perry, on a visit to Albania, told a Tirana news conference that he was ``disappointed'' with the Bosnian Serb response and that the contact group foreign ministers would consider ``a whole series of potential actions.''

THESE, he said, could include a tightening of the UN sanctions on rump Yugoslavia, and ``as the last resort, they will be considering the lifting of the arms embargo on Bosnia.''

Other steps the contact group foreign ministers will review include increased enforcement and an expansion of NATO-protected UN safe areas for Bosnian Muslims.

In Paris, a French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told reporters that ``the reply given by the Serbs yesterday is not acceptable'' and that there would be ``no negotiations'' during the period leading up to the foreign ministers' conference.

German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel warned that if the Bosnian Serb stance was not changed by the conference, ``then their response must be regarded as a `no,' with all the consequences that could follow.''

But the Russian interpretation of the Bosnian Serb response raised serious questions as to whether the contact group powers would be able to agree on what steps to take.

``Whatever resolve the contact group had in putting pressure on the Serbs during this ultimatum period seems to have crumbled all across the board,'' said Marshall Freeman Harris, a former US diplomat now with the Washington-based Action Council for Peace in the Balkans.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, for domestic political reasons, has been reluctant to support harsh steps against the Bosnian Serbs, including stepped up Western military involvement.

Russia opposes the lifting of the UN arms embargo on Sarajevo, which the British and the French are also hesitant to approve.

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