Bosnia: Quiet Guns and Noisy Diplomacy
SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — THE Bosnian government is drawing its line in the snow where the international community refused to.
Bihac, the UN declared safe area in northwest Bosnia that the West failed to protect from Bosnian Serb attacks last month, has become a test for the halting new peace process.
Playing a game of diplomatic brinkmanship, the Muslim-led government is threatening to turn the fragile, one-week cease-fire brokered by former President Jimmy Carter last week into what cynics predicted - a momentary respite for both sides before plunging into renewed fighting.
Croatian Serb forces and rebel Muslim forces, who are not included in the Carter agreement, have continued attacking the enclave. Increasingly nervous United Nations officials say the attacks on Bihac have not been severe but that both sides may use them as a way to scuttle a week of talks on a four-month cessation of hostilities scheduled to end Saturday.
UN Bosnia commander Lt. Gen. Michael Rose shuttled to Bihac Wednesday. General Rose failed to return with a local cease-fire he hoped for, but said he is optimistic. ``I believe we're working in a very different strategic environment at the moment, and I think there is goodwill and good faith on all sides to bring this war to a halt,'' he said.
Fikret Abdic, leader of the rebel Muslim forces in the Bihac area who has aligned with Bosnian Serb forces, gave ``verbal assurances'' to Rose that his forces would stop fighting. Atif Dudakovic, commander of the embattled Bosnian Muslim Fifth Corps in the enclave, met with Rose, but said he would seek further guidance from his commanders in Sarajevo before agreeing to a cease-fire. Rose was unable to meet with Croatian Serb leaders because of bad weather.
UN officials, who have said the Bosnian government is exaggerating the seriousness of the attacks, have warned the Muslim-led Bosnian government not to let the attacks derail the talks.
``In the main, the Bihac area has been quiet,'' said UN spokesman Col. Gary Coward. ``It's important that the Bosnian government not let that issue scuttle the talks [on a cessation of hostilities]. It would be a tragedy for that to occur.''
UN Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi and Rose have been mediating talks this week between Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-led government on a four-month cessation of hostilities. If an agreement is reached, UN troops will be inserted between the warring sides, and talks will begin on a long-term peace settlement.
Publicly at least, the Bosnian government is hardening its position on Bihac. Bosnian Vice President Ejup Ganic said earlier this week that Croatian Serbs must withdraw from the enclave as ``the condition for further negotiations.'' But privately, Bosnian government officials have been participating in negotiations with UN mediators on the cessation of hostilities agreement.
UN officials say the talks are continuing to stall on the ``contact group'' peace plan, which the Bosnian Serbs have rejected, but the Bosnian government has accepted. The plan would divide Bosnia and give the Bosnian Serbs 49 percent of the country, and the government 51 percent.
UN sources say both sides are also disagreeing over the terms of an exchange of prisoners and accounting of missing persons. The Bosnian government suspects that many of its 16,000 Muslims missing during the war died in Serb prisoner-of-war camps.
``The [cessation of hostilities] document is now on its second draft. We've got something that's close now,'' a UN official said. ``We're working on some new language on the issue of detainees and missing persons.''
The cessation of hostilities document may simply not mention the contact group plan and leave the partition map issue to future negotiations with the contact group - made up of representatives of the US, Britain, France, Russia, and Germany - a clear victory for the Serbs. The Muslim-led government has been demanding that the Serbs accept the contact group plan as a precondition for a cessation of hostilities agreement.
Outside of Bihac, the one-week cease-fire has generally been holding. Stacks of humanitarian aid line one runway at Sarajevo airport, which re-opened after Mr. Carter's visit. Truck convoys carrying food and fuel have been regularly entering Sarajevo and the three Muslim enclaves in Eastern Bosnia as UN officials try to rapidly stock food and supplies for the winter. But Croatian Serb and rebel Muslim forces have been delaying and harassing humanitarian aid convoys into Bihac.
In Sarajevo, few residents were optimistic about the chances for peace. One worried what other concessions would be made to the Serbs as pressure from the international community - and the United States - mounts for a settlement. ``The US has turned its back on us,'' he said. ``Now, it's just official.''