The Bosnian Serb leadership is seeking direct talks with the Muslim-led government of Bosnia-Herzegovina to end the country's 3-year-old ethnic civil war, but their overtures have so far been rebuffed, authorities here say.
The move comes after the Bosnian Serbs rejected the latest in a series of international diplomatic peace proposals and amid growing signs that renewed fighting could erupt on a large scale after the current four-month cease-fire, which is due to end May 1.
In an interview Tuesday in the Bosnian Serb mountain stronghold of Pale, east of Sarajevo, Nikola Koljevic, the self-styled vice president of the rebel Bosnian Serb government, said he had already had preliminary contacts with members of the Muslim-led Bosnian government.
"I'm trying to establish a cooperative relationship with influential Muslims at present," he said. "I think direct talks can help more to accelerate a final agreement. It will be much clearer in direct contact whether someone wants peace or war."
He said the idea of direct negotiations came from Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic last week and that Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic agreed the next day, placing a 15-day deadline for a substantive response on how to move forward.
But senior government officials here told a different story.
Hassan Muratovic, a Bosnian government minister who has met with Koljevic in connection with cease-fire arrangements, Thursday denied that Izetbegovic had made any offer and rejected any prospect of direct talks.
"We will never negotiate with them directly," he said. "The vehicle for a settlement remains the Contact Group plan. There is nothing better possible. We remain committed to it."
That plan, drawn up by the Contact Group's five member states--Britain, Germany, France, Russia and the United States--calls for dividing the country geographically into a federation that would give 51% of the land to Muslims and Croats and 49% to minority Serbs. Bosnian Serb forces control about 70% of the country.
The Bosnian Serb rejection of that plan, coupled with the apparent failure of the Contact Group to enlist Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to pressure his Bosnian Serb allies, appears to have exhausted diplomatic efforts to end the fighting.
High-level contacts between Bosnian Serbs and members of the Muslim-led government have occurred almost from the war's beginning but are not known to have ever turned into negotiations.
While Koljevic did not elaborate on his recent contacts, he has participated in "airport talks," periodic meetings conducted since last December between Bosnian Serb and Bosnian government representatives at Sarajevo airport to establish and regulate the present cease-fire.
Occasional Bosnian Serb-Bosnian government contacts also took place at the airport before the cease-fire.
One diplomat also reported recent instances of high-level Bosnian Serbs contacting old Muslim acquaintances in Sarajevo in an attempt to start a dialogue. This diplomat and other analysts said the Bosnian Serbs believe that they now have as much of the country as they can hold, have given up trying to take Sarajevo and would like to negotiate a peace before the Bosnian government forces gain more strength. As a rebel group, they would also win credibility and status through direct talks with the internationally recognized Bosnian government.
In his interview, Koljevic said negotiations should begin from a single starting point--assuring that, whatever the geographical division, both Serbian-controlled Bosnia and Muslim-Croat Bosnia would be "viable political entities."
"We have a chance to make a geographical solution," he said. "Outsiders don't understand this."
At the heart of such a solution, he said, is that a Muslim-Croat state would be guaranteed access to the sea in return for providing the Bosnian Serbs a corridor at least 10 miles wide connecting the two sections of Bosnia now controlled by the Bosnian Serbs.
Meantime, on Thursday, five bullets pierced a U.N. plane on Sarajevo's runway--the fourth plane hit in six days.
Bosnian Serbs also revoked permission for food shipments to reach Muslims in northwest Bosnia and harassed a Muslim charity, the Associated Press reported.