Warning opens Bosnian talks Choose peace now or permanent strife, Christopher says

'Prevent a wider war'

Presidents of Serbia, Croatia agree on some general goals

November 02, 1995|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DAYTON, Ohio -- Secretary of State Warren Christopher opened the Bosnian peace talks yesterday urgently warning the three warring Balkan presidents that if they refuse to pursue peace now, they are choosing permanener said. "If we fail, the war will resume and future generations will surely hold us accountable for the consequences that would follow."

The three presidents -- Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, and Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Herzegovina -- sat across a round table from Mr. Christopher in stony silence, showing no sign of accepting or rejecting the secretary of state's solemn appeal.

But a few hours later, U.S. officials announced that some diplomatic ice had been broken. Mr. Christopher took the Serbian and Croatian presidents to a nearby officer's house, where they agreed to work toward protecting human rights, restoring property lost in the four-year war in the former Yugoslavia and settling a conflict over Serbian-held Eastern Slavonia, which Croatia wants back.

Today, the talks will focus on Bosnia, said Nicholas Burns, a State Department spokesman.

"Each side represented their views very aggressively," Mr. Burns said, "but there wasn't any anger in the room."

Earlier, at the opening ceremonies, the tension was palpable. The three presidents avoided even shaking hands until Mr. Christopher walked around the table, leaned over them and apparently asked them to do so.

"These people have made war against each other for four years," Mr. Burns said. "They're not friends."

Moments before, observing strict separate-but-equal protocol, the presidents had entered the conference room in the aptly named Hope Hotel at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base here.

President Milosevic, who is representing both Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs, was first. A minute later, President Tudjman followed as his name was gravely announced. Mr. Milosevic curtly nodded his head in Mr. Tudjman's direction. A moment later, President Izetbegovic walked slowly in. All three avoided looking at each other as they sat down.

Only Mr. Christopher; Carl Bildt, representing the European Union; and Igor Ivanov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, spoke before reporters were ushered out and a news blackout was invoked.

"We have an urgent and important purpose today," Mr. Christopher said. "We are here to give Bosnia and Herzegovina a chance to be a country at peace, not a killing field. "We're here to prevent a wider war that would undermine European security at a time when the whole continent should finally be at peace."

The talks are called the Proximity Peace Talks because the participants are sitting in rooms near each other but for the most part won't meet face to face. American diplomats are carrying proposals to them so people who have been so ready to kill each other don't have to look each other in the eye.

At the opening session, the three warring delegations were joined at the round table, covered by a simple dark blue cloth, by Richard Holbrooke, the chief U.S. negotiator; Pauline Neville-Jones from the United Kingdom; Jacques Blot of France; Wolfgang Ischinger of Germany; and Mr. Bildt, Mr. Christopher and Mr. Ivanov.

"There have been no winners in this war, nor could there have been any," Mr. Ivanov said, emphasizing Russia's shared purpose with the United States. "Everyone has lost, the Serbs, the Croats, the Muslims and Europe as a whole."

Mr. Christopher acknowledged that Congress is reluctant to send U.S. soldiers to Bosnia. About 20,000 Americans would join Russians and other NATO-led forces to keep the peace if an agreement is reached here.

"The American people and the United States Congress are asking serious and appropriate questions about U.S. participation in the implementation force," he said.

"They will watch closely for signs that the parties are finally ready to lay down their arms and to begin a lasting peace. The United States will not send troops where there is no peace to keep."

The war in Bosnia has been going on more than three years, since the Muslim-dominated former Yugoslav republic sought independence and the well-armed Serb minority went to war against the move.

In the ensuing fighting, tens of thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands left homeless, driven from their homes in waves of "ethnic cleansing."

The goals of the talks, Mr. Christopher said, are to ensure that Bosnia continues to exist as a single state, that human rights are guaranteed and that those guilty of massacre, rape and torture are punished as war criminals.

The three presidents came to Dayton on Tuesday, flying directly to the air force base and arriving at three-hour intervals beginning at 3 p.m. The talks are expected to last about two weeks.

Before the talks began, Mr. Christopher visited each delegation -- for precisely 45 minutes each -- to discuss the peace process and ask them to observe a news blackout.

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