War flared on new and old fronts in the Balkans on Wednesday while American diplomats shopped around a peace plan that was receiving lukewarm response.
The Croatian army, still flush from its stunning victory over Croatian Serbs in the Krajina region, was reported advancing on Bosnian Serbs in western Bosnia-Herzegovina and fortifying positions around the medieval Adriatic town of Dubrovnik.
United Nations officials said several thousand Croatian army troops were massing near Dubrovnik, possibly aiming to push back Bosnian Serb artillery. The maneuvers followed the fifth night of shelling and artillery exchanges between Croatian forces at Dubrovnik and Bosnian Serb forces about nine miles away in Bosnia’s Trebinje region.
“There seem to be movements of Croatian troops in that direction, so we may expect some intensification of fighting in the Dubrovnik area,” U.N. special envoy Yasushi Akashi told reporters in the Croatian capital, Zagreb.
The Croatian army was also on the move through western Bosnia and battled Serbian troops for the town of Drvar. Taking Drvar would move the Croats closer to Bosanski Petrovac, the last major Serb-held town in western Bosnia.
The offensive appeared to be an attempt by the Croats to build a corridor running parallel to the newly reconquered Krajina region, chipping away at Serb-held western Bosnia.
More fighting was also reported 50 miles to the east, where Bosnian government forces have been battling Serbs for the town of Donji Vakuf.
Warfare ignored a new round of peace talks, where diplomacy was running into obstacles. American diplomats were already forced to back down from one proposal in a plan that Washington has billed as a major new initiative.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, leading the U.S. delegation, met with Croatian President Franjo Tudjman on Wednesday and was scheduled to meet Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic here today.
“The American delegation outlined our views on the crisis, stressing our belief that the situation requires a dramatic step forward,” Holbrooke told reporters in Zagreb after meeting with Tudjman.
The plan is said to contain seven points, including several concessions for the Bosnian Serbs, mutual recognition for the warring Balkan nations--Bosnia, Croatia and the Serbia-dominated rump Yugoslavia--and an aid package for Bosnia’s Muslim-led but secular government.
U.S. officials have sought to keep the plan secret, but some details have leaked out.
According to Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey, who was briefed Tuesday, the plan calls for new maps to divide territory between warring Serbs and Muslims.
The Bosnian Serbs have used the war to seize 70% of Bosnia, and previous peace deals have established a formula for giving the nationalist Serbs 49% of Bosnia and the present government 51%. The new plan, according to diplomats and government officials in the region, would maintain that ratio but change the makeup of the territory given each side.
Exactly how the land would be divided remains unclear, though it seems likely the Bosnian Serbs would be allowed to keep the former U.N.-designated “safe areas” of Srebrenica and Zepa. They conquered those areas last month, then carried out the practice of “ethnic cleansing"--the brutal ejection of opposing parties.
A suggestion to exchange the Muslim enclave of Gorazde for Serb-held portions around the capital, Sarajevo, was met with such vehement opposition, however--especially from Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic--that the Americans shelved the idea.
Any peace settlement in the Balkans would rely on the cooperation of Serbian leader Milosevic, and the plan is said to include the lifting of international economic sanctions against the rump Yugoslavia in exchange for Milosevic’s recognition of both Bosnia and Croatia.
Similar negotiations in May between Milosevic and U.S. envoy Robert Frasure came close to a deal but broke down when Milosevic demanded guarantees that sanctions would not be reimposed.
Asking Milosevic to recognize Croatia just weeks after Zagreb ousted the Krajina Serbs is particularly problematic because hatred for Croatia is running strong in Serbia.
But the damage to the Yugoslav economy is increasingly harmful.
“He knows better than anyone that he must get rid of the sanctions,” a European diplomat said of Milosevic. “Each winter has been worse than the one before, and this winter will be terrible.”
Times staff writer Dean E. Murphy in Split, Croatia, contributed to this report.