Fierce fighting in central Bosnia-Herzegovina shattered a new cease-fire Saturday, and the republic's Muslim president cast serious doubt on the chances for a peace agreement that a Western mediator has described as "tantalizingly close."
Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic said in a radio broadcast from Sarajevo that he intends to stick by demands for further territorial concessions by Serbian and Croatian nationalists in exchange for an ethnic division of his vanquished state.
European Community mediator Lord Owen and U.N. special envoy Thorvald Stoltenberg had predicted after their latest talks with the Bosnian combatants that all three factions were ready to sign a truce to end the 18-month-old bloodshed at a meeting planned for Tuesday at Sarajevo's airport.
"I personally don't see it, and I told Owen that," Izetbegovic said of the accord the mediators want signed at the airport meeting.
Owen and Stoltenberg flew from Belgrade to Split to discuss the proposed pact with Croatian President Franjo Tudjman after having garnered the support a day earlier of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, widely seen as the instigator of the Balkan conflict.
A spokesman for the mediators seemed to back away from their hearty predictions of an imminent settlement, noting that the Sarajevo meeting may be called off if there are signs that the combatants are not ready to agree to peace.
"They would like a meeting to sign, not negotiate," spokesman John Mills told Reuters news agency. Mills said the Sarajevo gathering is not a sure thing, although he quoted Owen as saying a settlement is "tantalizingly close."
Another sign that the long-sought truce might still be beyond reach was the immediate failure of another cease-fire ordered by Izetbegovic and Tudjman to take effect at noon Saturday.
Muslims and Croats battled across a wide swath of central Bosnia, providing fresh proof of the limited authority that political and military leaders have over renegade local factions fighting over territory in advance of the republic's ethnic partitioning.
Military commanders of all three warring parties--Serbs, Croats and the Muslim-led government--had met with the U.N. commander for Bosnia a day earlier to pledge their commitment to the latest cease-fire as a prelude to the truce expected Tuesday.
If the proposed agreement is signed by all three parties and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization makes good on its offer to send in as many as 50,000 enforcement troops, the mediators say, the accord will bring an end to the deadly Bosnian conflict.
But Croatian Radio and U.N. sources reported that heavy fighting continued unabated in the fiercely contested towns of Vitez, Travnik and Gornji Vakuf. Clashes also were reported to have resumed later in the day in Mostar, which has been devastated by a succession of assaults launched by all three national groups.
Although Owen and Stoltenberg have said they have commitments to the expected peace accord from all three Bosnian factions, several disputes over key territories remain to be resolved.
The framework agreement the mediators have asked the political leaders to sign Tuesday provides for further talks to determine the exact contours of the ethnic division that will create three independent ministates out of the current Bosnia.
Control of Mostar and the disposition of an arc of ethnically tense towns and villages in central Bosnia are among the territorial disputes yet to be settled and likely to fuel further fighting.
Tuesday's meeting, if it takes place, will be the first time Bosnia's rival leaders have met since Geneva-based peace talks collapsed nearly three weeks ago when Izetbegovic insisted that the truncated state allocated to the Muslims and supporters of integration would need access to the Adriatic Sea to be economically viable.
He also demanded that some areas of northwestern Bosnia that were overwhelmingly Muslim before being subjected to "ethnic cleansing" by rebel Serbs be included in the rump Bosnian state.
But sources close to the mediators say Izetbegovic has been made to realize that Bosnians who have been fighting to preserve their republic's multiethnic heritage face a disastrous winter if they continue to resist heavily armed Serbian and Croatian nationalists.
That newfound pragmatism, the sources say, has compelled the government to give in to an accord even less favorable than the one it rejected Sept. 1.
Since then, Owen and Stoltenberg have agreed to nationalist demands that each state have the right to secede after two years--a concession that effectively shatters any hope of eventual reconciliation of the three states being carved out of Bosnia.