Bosnian peace pact teeters on the brink Land disputes freeze talks past deadline

Clinton intervenes

November 21, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINTON — WASHINGTON -- President Clinton intervened to prevent a collapse of the Bosnian peace process yesterday after new disputes broke out over territory, U.S. officials said.

The White House informed congressional leaders that if the Muslim-led Bosnian government, Serbian and Croatian delegations failed to reach an agreement, a partial deal could be announced and the talks would be recessed for a week. But a White House official said late last evening that U.S. mediators were still pressing for a comprehensive settlement.

"What they're pushing for is to try and get this resolved," the official said. "We're anticipating it'll go into the morning."

Hours after thinking they had nailed down an agreement, U.S. mediators at the talks outside Dayton, Ohio, were suddenly pessimistic about reaching a comprehensive peace settlement of the 3 1/2 -year-old Bosnian war.

"There are several territorial issues," said an official close to the 20-day-old talks.

The most pressing dispute involves the Posavina corridor, a strip of land that would connect Serbian-held lands in eastern and western Bosnia. In addition to sharp disagreements between Serbs and the Muslim-Croatian alliance over the width of the corridor, there is a dispute between Serbs and Croats over control of an adjacent region near the town of Brcko in western Bosnia.

Mr. Clinton called Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to urge him to help resolve territorial problems, mentioning specifically the disputes over western Bosnia, an official said. Afterward officials were more optimistic.

Mr. Tudjman was also reported to have raised objections early yesterday to a plan that would give Serbia access to the Adriatic Sea near the Croatian port city of Dubrovnik. And other disputes were reported between Croats and Bosnian Muslims over territory south of Banja Luka.

If the negotiators decide to take a weeklong recess, this would delay a final peace conference in Paris, where a peace the agreement is supposed to be signed. U.S. officials predict that the Paris conference would be held two weeks after an agreement is initialed.

The United States had set 10 a.m. yesterday as the deadline for the Bosnian talks to be concluded -- either with a deal or with an announcement that no agreement had been reached.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher reasoned that the Bosnian government, Serbs and Croats had had enough time to negotiate and understand the issues and needed to be pressed into making decisions, aides said.

But U.S. officials allowed the talks to continue past the deadline, and by midafternoon abandoned any talk of deadlines.

The talks are "now in extra innings," White House press secretary Michael McCurry said early yesterday afternoon. "But the mediators and those participating agree that they should continue their discussions."

Mr. Christopher and top aides had worked with the Balkan leaders for 22 straight hours and believed they had an agreement locked up by about 5 a.m. yesterday, according to officials.

Then Mr. Tudjman, who had just returned to Dayton from his capital of Zagreb, raised objections to the plan to grant the Serbs a port on the Adriatic, an official said.

Negotiations resumed a few hours later, and the secretary met with leaders of Serbian, Bosnian government and Croatian delegations as well as with the so-called Contact Group of mediators, which includes diplomats from Russia, Germany, Britain, France and the United States.

With the territorial disputes threatening to spoil the fruits of three weeks of negotiations and months of preparations, U.S. officials floated the idea of a partial peace settlement that left the toughest problems for a commission to resolve.

One U.S. official acknowledged, however, that such an incomplete deal would make it even harder for the Clinton administration to persuade Congress to send U.S. troops into Bosnia as part of a NATO peacekeeping force that will enforce the accord.

But the official said the United States was in a bind, since it needed help from Bosnia's government in order to win congressional support for the accord.

"If the Bosnians are unhappy, it's harder to sell," the official said.

On Sunday night, the administration set in motion plans to satisfy key demands made by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and the Bosnian government.

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