Negotiations aimed at imposing peace in ravaged Bosnia-Herzegovina collapsed late Wednesday, shattering expectations of an imminent breakthrough and prompting mediators to warn of another escalation of “anarchy and war.”
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic had confidently predicted a day earlier that the Muslim-led Bosnian government would accept his terms for peace, which call for carving three ethnically based ministates out of the wreckage of the former Yugoslav republic.
But Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic reportedly rejected the proposed division, which would have left only about 30% of the republic’s territory for Bosnia’s 2 million Muslims and hundreds of thousands of others who cling to the ideal of an integrated, multiethnic state.
Izetbegovic, a Muslim, blamed the collapse of the peace talks on the failure of Serbian and Croatian leaders to make essential concessions to the landlocked republic envisaged under the map proposed by international mediators.
“The minimum of minimums which we put before the conference today would have allowed an economically and politically viable state,” he said after leaving the bargaining table.
“They (Serbs and Croats) have rejected our requirements, and therefore this round of talks failed,” said a visibly wearied Izetbegovic.
Under the plan pushed by Lord Owen of the European Community and U.N. envoy Thorvald Stoltenberg, the Serbian militants who have seized 70% of Bosnia in a 17-month offensive would keep at least 52%, despite the fact that their entire ethnic group accounted for less than a third of Bosnia’s prewar population of 4.4 million.
“The talks have failed because there is not an agreement on the map,” said Owen. “They all want more territory than either of the others is prepared to give.”
The collapse of talks in this Swiss city, far removed from the conflict, raised the prospect that Bosnia’s Serbs and Croats will again go on the offensive against the poorly armed government forces and eventually divide the republic between them.
Izetbegovic vowed that his army will “respect the cease-fire. But, of course, whether there will be war or not does not depend only on us.”
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic likewise assured Western mediators that his Bosnian Serb supporters will respect the shaky cease-fire announced last month. But he appeared livid over the breakdown of the talks.
A negotiated settlement with international backing would have cemented the Serbs’ hold over most of the territory seized through the process of “ethnic cleansing.”
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman predicted that the fighting will continue unabated.
Intense clashes have persisted in central Bosnia as Croatian and Muslim troops have tried to grab more land for their own people.
Owen previously warned that the partition offer, while far from ideal, was the best he could salvage for the Bosnians and would not remain on the table too much longer. The alternative, he told reporters, is “fragmentation, anarchy, warlords and chaos.”
None of the leaders of the three warring parties ruled out a resumption of peace talks in the future. Owen warned, however, that “barring a miracle or a sudden shift,” negotiations were not expected to resume today even though leaders of the three warring parties had reportedly agreed to remain in Geneva.
President Momir Bulatovic of Montenegro, which along with Serbia constitutes the rump Yugoslavia, said the agreement was “too crucial for the lives of so many people” for the complete collapse of talks to be allowed.
The sudden impasse surprised observers after a day in which all three sides had indicated they were on the verge of signing an agreement.
“I think it is a tragedy that they could not come to a solution,” said Charles Redman, special envoy for President Clinton.
“The two sides were very close. But President Izetbegovic said what was finally there was not acceptable, and we certainly respect that,” he said, indicating U.S. support for the Muslims who have been under heavy European pressure to accept Serbian and Croatian military gains.
In a bid to persuade the Bosnian delegation to accept the offer, Milosevic--the reputed mastermind of the 2-year-old Balkan conflict--reportedly offered in a private talk with Izetbegovic to set up a 1.8-mile-wide corridor from Sarajevo to three isolated eastern enclaves proposed for Muslim control. But the proposal failed to meet any other Muslim demands, such as Serbian withdrawal from areas that were once predominantly Muslim but have been “cleansed” and occupied by rebel Serbs.
Chafing under a 15-month-old U.N. economic embargo imposed for his support of Serbian attacks in Bosnia, Milosevic has tried to push through a peace settlement to get the devastating sanctions lifted. After more than two years of war, the Serbian economy is collapsing.
Earlier, the Bosnian government had laid the ground for a possible agreement by scaling back its demands for territorial concessions from Serbian and Croatian leaders.
Izetbegovic had put forward a proposal that his republic receive an additional 4% of Bosnian territory. Previous proposals have demanded at least 10% more land for the Muslims.
Members of the Muslim delegation were reported to be in tears as the talks broke up at Geneva’s Palais des Nations.
Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Split, Croatia, contributed to this story.