Carter's Handiwork For Peace in Bosnia Gives Serbs Big Stick

THE four-month cease-fire in Bosnia that former President Jimmy Carter initiated has led to much hand wringing by US diplomats and their Western partners.

The brief peace has so bolstered the Serbs' negotiating strength that they have staunchly defied pressure by the five-nation ``contact group'' to accept a peace plan that would reduce their hold on Bosnia to 49 percent from 70 percent.

``We did not get a very good response from [them],'' a senior US official said Wednesday after contact-group negotiators gave up talks. ``Their position is ... `we will never accept the plan.' ''

The Serbs appear to know, and the senior US official admits, that there is little new pressure the international community can bring to bear on the Serbs to accept the plan. Divided over whether an arms embargo against the Muslim-led Bosnian Army should be lifted and whether punitive airstrikes should be used against the Serbs, the contact group has few putative tools at its disposal.

The senior US official says the political will to even set a deadline for Serb acceptance of the peace plan does not exist. ``Deadlines require strong political backing,'' he says. ``It's sort of evident [we don't have that].''

The continued failure of the negotiations is a large setback for the United States. Charles Thomas, the US representative on the contact group, held two days of apparently fruitless talks with the Serbs before the other members of the group - representing Britain, France, Germany, and Russia - arrived here this week.

Two major US concessions to the Serbs - restarting direct negotiations with them and a softening of the ``take-it-or-leave-it'' requirement of the peace plan - has produced only infighting among US diplomats.

US Ambassador to Bosnia Victor Jackovich was reportedly sent back to Washington this week and reprimanded for opposing the US decision to renew direct talks with Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. Until last month, the US had maintained that no official contacts with the Bosnian Serbs would take place until they accepted the contact-group plan.

Mr. Jackovich has advocated strict observance of UN resolutions on Bosnia that the international community has failed to uphold, including the ban on contacts between Western diplomats and the Bosnian Serb leadership. He has viewed such behavior as appeasement, which has encouraged the Serbs to spurn the contact-group peace plan.

Frustrated Bosnian government officials - who have already accepted the plan - are back to repeating their mantra that the West must accept the Serb rejection, lift a UN arms embargo on Bosnia, and arm the Bosnian Army.

``Nothing has changed,'' Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic said in an interview. ``No matter how many times the Serbs say no, [the West] wouldn't take it for an answer.''

The Bosnian government is proposing a two-month period for the Serbs to accept the plan or face Western airstrikes, which the contact group appears unlikely to adopt.

Bosnian officials say they are being told by contact group officials that they must continue talks with Bosnian Serb officials because they fear Mr. Carter will rejoin the peace process. Both Bosnian government and contact group officials fear that Carter would quickly abandon the contact group plan and try to jump-start talks by offering a new peace plan - which is exactly what the Serbs want.

``The [contact group] says if we don't go'' to the Serbs again, a senior Bosnian official says, ``Jimmy Carter is waiting to.''

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