`Contact Group' Muddles Through on Bosnia

THE five-power ``contact group'' has pleased no one by deciding on Saturday to tighten sanctions on the rump-Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro in response to Bosnian Serb rejection of the latest Bosnia-Herzegovina peace plan.

The Muslim-led Bosnian government expressed disappointment yesterday that stronger action was not taken, but reaffirmed its unconditional acceptance of the contact group's peace proposal.

The Bosnian Serbs' main patron, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, castigated his estranged prots for the new economic punishment to be exacted against the Serb-dominated remnant of former Yugoslavia.

And, in their initial reaction, the Bosnian Serbs threatened to break off all ties with the contact group.

Western diplomats and United Nations officials conceded that paramount in the decision of the United States, Russian, French, British, and German foreign ministers was preserving their tenuous unity, given ongoing, unresolved differences over taking harsher measures.

``In order to keep the solidarity of the contact group, they came up with a solution acceptable to the Russians and the Americans,'' says a Western diplomat.

As a result, the source said, Bosnia will remain adrift in a nether world of ``neither war nor peace,'' with low-intensity fighting adding daily to the toll of some 200,000 dead in 28 months of ethnic conflict.

A UN military official admitted: ``This is our muddle-through scenario.''

The contact group foreign ministers, meeting on Saturday in Geneva, agreed to tighten the UN sanctions imposed on rump Yugoslavia in May 1992 for sponsoring the Bosnian Serbs' ethnic-cleansing conquest of some 72 percent of Bosnia.

The group acted after the Bosnian Serbs persisted in refusing to accept unconditionally the peace plan to divide Bosnia roughly equally between them and the new Muslim-Croat federation.

The Bosnian Serbs would have to relinquish about one-third of their conquered territory and drop their goal of uniting with rump-Yugoslavia and rebel Serb-held areas of Croatia in a ``union of all Serb lands.''

The contact-group communique did not disclose precisely how the sanctions would be tightened in a new UN Security Council resolution; it left unanswered widespread doubts that any action would succeed in closing massive breaches of the trade and petroleum bans.

Belgrade's neighbors, especially Macedonia, have allowed fuel and other prohibited commodities to pour through their borders recently to make up for billions of dollars in losses attributed to the sanctions.

The contact group declined to act on other punitive steps it had threatened to take, including the expansion of UN- and NATO-enforced, heavy-weapons exclusion zones around Sarajevo and the Muslim-dominated eastern town of Gorazde.

The foreign ministers said only that they were requesting ``the finalization of planning'' for such a step and affirmed a vague ``commitment'' to strengthening the protection of Sarajevo, Gorazde, and four other Muslim towns declared UN ``safe areas.''

Finally, they repeated that, if the Bosnian Serbs continued to reject the peace plan, the UN Security Council would, as a ``last resort,'' grant the Bosnian government an exemption from a UN arms embargo imposed in 1991 on all six former Yugoslav republics.

Western diplomats and UN officials said the United States had pressed hard for the expansion of the weapons exclusion zones.

But, in addition to Russian opposition to further Western military involvement in Bosnia, the US also encountered resistance to the idea from Britain and France.

The two European powers are the largest contributors to the UN protection force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia, and they worry that any precipitous military action could provoke retaliation against their troops by the Bosnian Serbs.

``The Americans have been quite extreme ... but they won't commit troops,'' says a senior UN military officer. ``It puts Americans in a very morally curious position, saying `We'll make the rules, you go do it. You get the body bags.' ''

The United States has also been the prime advocate for lifting the arms embargo off the Bosnian government.

France, Britain, and the UN hierarchy under UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali have said that UNPROFOR would have to be withdrawn from Bosnia if Western military involvement is stepped up or the arms embargo lifted.

Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic said that there were ``positive elements'' in the contact group communique, including tighter UN sanctions and a reaffirmation of the inviolability of Bosnia's international borders.

But, he said, those factors were outweighed by ``negative elements,'' including the lack of harsher measures against the Bosnian Serbs and the contact group's failure to expressly threaten military action.

``Taken as a whole, it is below the expectations of our public,'' he said of the communique.

In a statement published by the state-controlled Belgrade daily Politika, President Milosevic said that Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic should accept the peace plan.

``It is not entirely just as far as the Serb side is concerned ... but without doubt, a compromise is necessary. Peace is more just than war, and life and wisdom must prevail over death and incessant destruction,'' he said.

Milosevic's statement reflected the pressure he is under to have the UN sanctions lifted.

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