Serbian and Croatian politicians in Bosnia-Herzegovina have conspired to carve up the newly independent republic, but new eruptions of ethnic fighting Friday underscored the failings of a plan that ignores the interests of Bosnia's largest nationality, the Slavic Muslims.
State-run media in Belgrade heralded the Serb-Croat agreement as a step toward peace in Bosnia, where at least 400 people have been killed since Serbs took up arms to protest independence two months ago.
But the latest in a series of behind-the-scenes deals to divide Bosnian territory failed to ease the fighting and drew swift condemnation from the United States.
"No agreement is possible at the expense of the Muslims in Bosnia or the legitimate, democratically elected government," said State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler. "We note that some 64% of the Bosnian electorate voted for an independent, unified Bosnia in the referendum that was held late in February."
She said Washington had no evidence that the governments of Serbia and Croatia were directly involved in the agreement but added that the Bush Administration plans close monitoring of the situation in Bosnia and continuing coordination with European allies.
The deal to split most of Bosnia's territory between rival Serbs and Croats was reached during a clandestine meeting Wednesday in the Austrian city of Graz between Bosnia's radical Serbian leader, Radovan Karadzic, and one of the republic's most nationalist Croatian politicians, Mate Boban.
Karadzic, who has been lobbying for the ethnic division of Bosnia for months, told Belgrade television that only a few minor details remained to be ironed out to end hostilities in Bosnia.
But his prediction that the plan would lead to a cessation of fighting between Serbs and Croats was immediately disproved. Clashes continued between the bitter rivals along Bosnia's northern border with Croatia and around the republic capital, Sarajevo. And the Serbian-led federal army has been engaged in particularly fierce combat in the southern city of Mostar, which is surrounded by Croatian communities.
Karadzic suggested that some terms of the deal may be renegotiated with the Muslims, who make up 44% of Bosnia's 4.4 million people.
"We are naturally not neglecting our relations with the Muslims and will suggest that Serbs and Muslims sit and talk about the borders of their future constituent territories," said Karadzic, who had made no secret of his plans to annex two-thirds of Bosnian territory to the new Yugoslav federation created by his ally, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
Serbs in Bosnia account for only 31% of the population, and many of the regions they claim are inhabited predominantly by Muslims.
Western diplomats said it remained unclear to what degree authorities in the Croatian capital of Zagreb supported the accord. The official daily Vjesnik, a mouthpiece for Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, called for inclusion of the Muslims in any talks about Bosnia's future.
Although nationalist factions in Croatia covet the predominantly Croatian areas of Bosnia and have publicly discussed annexation, Croatia's bid for integration with Western Europe would suffer a serious blow if it were to take territory from Bosnia by force.
The 12-nation European Community has been mediating tripartite talks among Bosnia's ethnic groups to reshape the republic into ethnically controlled cantons. Any attempt by Croatia to circumvent those talks would probably scuttle Zagreb's hopes of eventual EC membership and Western help in rebuilding after a devastating civil war.
In another development Friday, the staunchly nationalist Yugoslav defense minister resigned and the federal army's top general in Bosnia was fired.
The defense minister, Gen. Blagoje Adzic, was replaced by his equally hard-line chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Zivota Panic.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this article.