Mediators boasted Friday of being on the verge of ending the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but others involved in the elusive quest for peace acknowledged that they were forging a pact in desperation and warned that it is dangerously vulnerable to Western neglect.
Leaders of the three warring factions have been summoned to the Sarajevo airport Tuesday and have promised to put their signatures to an agreement that will break Bosnia into three ethnic pieces.
Those brokering the accord claim to have won assurances from the nearly vanquished Bosnian government that it will accede to the settlement, despite several outstanding territorial disputes and a new provision allowing eventual annexation of conquered Bosnian land to Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia.
But the agreement expected three days from now could quickly collapse unless U.N. member countries make good on their offer to send as many as 50,000 enforcement troops.
Because those same Western countries have repeatedly failed to implement previous U.N. pledges to protect Bosnia, the mediators’ predictions of a settlement have been met with considerable skepticism and warnings that an explosive escalation of the conflict might be the price of another broken promise.
“The only thing worse than having this war continue is having a peace agreement without the means to implement it,” said one diplomat involved in the peace talks that began a year ago in London and have ranged throughout the Balkans and from Geneva to New York.
Sources within the negotiations team said the Bosnian leadership has suddenly acknowledged its precarious position as an outgunned and diplomatically isolated faction facing a second winter of hunger and despair.
In the two weeks since Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic refused to capitulate to the Serbian and Croatian nationalists’ terms for peace, his forces have been engaged in fierce but fruitless battles for territory and relief convoys destined for beleaguered Muslim communities have been blocked by the combat.
Izetbegovic and a senior member of the rebel Bosnian Serb leadership held secret talks in Geneva on Thursday, after which the Muslim president told mediators Thorvald Stoltenberg of the United Nations and Lord Owen of the European Community that he was prepared to sign the documents they have brokered to divide his country.
“There’s been an acknowledgment of the need for speed, to get a settlement quickly and to get it implemented before winter,” said one official involved in the talks.
Before flying here late Friday to discuss the emerging accord with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Owen told reporters in Istanbul, Turkey, that he believed the assurances he received from Izetbegovic marked “the first time we have come so close to an agreement.” He predicted “big steps toward peace will be taken in the next few days.”
The mediators also plan another meeting with Croatian President Franjo Tudjman before the Sarajevo conference and truce-signing ceremony, where the proxy warlords of Milosevic and Tudjman will represent Bosnian Serbs and Croats.
The agreements provide for a cease-fire, prisoner exchanges, unhindered passage of humanitarian aid convoys and formal acceptance of the division of Bosnia into three autonomous states.
Yet while Owen and Stoltenberg shuttled across the Balkans to firm up political support for the proposed settlement, Muslims and Croats fought fierce battles in central Bosnia, Serbian troops in the province of Kosovo rounded up leaders of an ethnic Albanian party, Croatian government troops torched Serbian villages in the disputed Krajina region and U.N. forces found new evidence of savage atrocities by all sides against civilians.
If the expected accord aimed at bringing peace to Bosnia is to have any chance of success, U.N. officials say, it is imperative that additional troops be dispatched immediately to oversee its enforcement.
Gen. Francis Briquemont of Belgium, commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia, told reporters in Sarajevo that his force would have to be expanded immediately to 15,000, and that another 4,000 to 5,000 troops would be needed just for Sarajevo.
Officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have estimated that 50,000 troops will have to be deployed to Bosnia to effectively enforce peace. The United States has offered to provide more than 20,000, but their participation may be contingent on congressional approval.
Some diplomats here accuse Western governments--including their own--of shamefully neglecting earlier commitments to search for a just peace in the Balkans.
Dozens of U.N. Security Council resolutions ordering an end to artillery bombardment of civilians and vowing to protect Bosnia’s territorial integrity have languished without enforcement. NATO monitors have recorded hundreds of violations of a “no-fly” zone imposed over Bosnia, yet none of the warplanes has been shot down for fear of retaliation against U.N. peacekeepers already in the region.
The United States, Russia, Britain, France and Spain collectively derailed calls for military intervention in the Bosnian conflict in May by offering to create “safe areas” for the republic’s embattled Muslims. Four months later, none of the 7,600 troops promised for protection of the enclaves have been deployed and all six designated havens are surrounded by Serbian artillery and deprived of vital aid.
The “safe areas” campaign, launched in Washington, led to the collapse of an earlier plan for dividing Bosnia that would have given the Sarajevo government control over considerably more territory and ensured that Bosnia remained at least a loosely unified single state.
However, Owen and Stoltenberg this week acceded to the demands of Serbian and Croatian nationalists that their ethnically “purified” ministates eventually be allowed annexation by their neighboring patrons, forming a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia.
The change, authorizing secession votes after a two-year transition period, appears to doom any prospects for reunification.