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U.S. Presses Bosnian Serbs to Accept Peace Plan : Diplomacy: Envoy’s visit to rebel headquarters marks departure from Washington’s earlier efforts. More talks are scheduled for today.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a major departure from U.S. practice, a top American negotiator held face-to-face talks Sunday with leaders of the Bosnian Serb army that has waged war against the Muslim-led government for the last three years.

Special envoy Charles Thomas met with rebel leader Radovan Karadzic and others in the Serb-held city of Pale in an effort to persuade them to agree to an international peace plan that the Bosnian government has accepted but the Serbs have not, diplomatic sources said.

No progress was reported in the diplomatically risky meetings, but Thomas is to return to Pale today for further talks, the sources said.

As a representative of the five-nation group that devised the peace plan, Thomas has met previously with Serbian leaders but never before in Pale--rebel headquarters--on his own. The action was seen by some observers here as an effort by the United States to establish more direct contact with the Bosnian Serbs, a strategy that would have been forbidden during periods when the Clinton Administration has sought to appear tougher on the Serbs and supportive of the Bosnian government.

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“There is a certain limit to the isolation policy,” said a U.S. official familiar with the negotiations.

The new contact clearly angered the Bosnian government, which fears that the international negotiators will allow the Serbs to evade the peace plan by hinting at limited acceptance when they have no intention of following through.

“I think one visit was enough to discover what (the Bosnian Serbs) really mean, and they mean ‘No,’ ” Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic said Sunday. “How many ‘No’s’ do (Western mediators) need to take ‘No’ for an answer?”

The Thomas initiative is apparently designed to take advantage of a four-month cease-fire aimed at laying the groundwork for broader talks. Despite the New Year’s truce, fighting has continued and the Serbian rebels have refused to open vital roads into this encircled capital.

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Last week, Secretary of State Warren Christopher notified Bosnian officials that the United States would pursue “dialogue” with the Bosnian Serbs. In a letter to Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, Christopher said the Serbs’ willingness to sign the cease-fire agreement signaled “a situation worth further exploration.”

Bosnian government officials, who were informed that Thomas would be traveling to Pale, remained deeply skeptical.

“It looks like (Western mediators) fall for (the Serbs’) tricks, they buy their promises, every time,” a dispirited Silajdzic said.

Silajdzic said he will use a trip to Washington this week to lobby for the removal of an international arms embargo that officials here contend has left the country defenseless against Serbian aggressors and to demand that the besieged nation be allowed to arm itself.

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“Our people do not understand that democratic governments can impose an embargo on the victims of fascist aggression,” Silajdzic said. “That is why we think the international community--all those who imposed this embargo--owe us.”

Last November, the U.S. government stopped enforcing the U.N.-mandated embargo, but the action was seen as largely symbolic because none of Washington’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies followed suit.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, have pushed Bosnia to stop emphasizing an end to the embargo as a step in the peace process, Silajdzic said. He said Thomas warned that lifting it would unleash “a catastrophe.”

“Like what we have now isn’t a catastrophe?” Silajdzic asked.

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The United Nations and many Western officials have repeatedly warned that lifting the embargo would mean a withdrawal of U.N. troops, leaving civilians to the mercy of what would undoubtedly be a fierce escalation of the war. But Silajdzic and other Bosnians argue that they’ve already been left helpless in a war that has claimed 200,000 lives.

The Bosnian government has accepted the international peace plan, which would give 51% of Bosnian territory to a Muslim-Croat federation and 49% to the Serbs. But because the Serbs now control 70%, they rejected it; then, under international pressure, Karadzic agreed to negotiate further, using the plan as a basis.


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