Has the Balkan Dawn Broken at Last? : Warring parties agree on a plan setting a cease-fire and peace talks in the United States

Prospects for peace are sweeping forward in Bosnia. President Clinton announced that the combatants have agreed to a cease-fire beginning Tuesday. All sides will stay in place; no offensives will be undertaken. On Oct. 25, the Bosnian, Serb and Croatian political leaders will begin talks at an East Coast site under American auspices on a full armistice--peace. "An important moment in the painful history" of the former Yugoslavia, the President called it. We will see whether it is a conclusive moment.

Credit goes to Clinton's special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, who has crisscrossed Europe for weeks putting this agreement together. When the peace talks begin, the task will be concentrated in the United States. American, Western European and Russian diplomats will orchestrate what they call proximity talks, pollinating peace as they move from group to group.

Achieving peace will pose difficult challenges both in the Balkans and in the capitals of the big powers, where hard questions about the composition of peacekeeping forces and postwar relief will be on the table.

Importantly, the warring parties themselves seem ready for a cease-fire, which is set to last 60 days. The document promoted and ferried by the persistent Holbrooke was accepted even by Gen. Ratko Mladic, the rebel Serbian hard-liner. This war, now more than 3 1/2 years old, has spent the military strength and political will of the adversaries. The once dominant and still better-armed Serb rebels have been pushed back on their heels by resurgent Croatians and Muslims. The three parties have already agreed, under American mediation, to a postwar map of Bosnia-Herzegovina that would give all of them a share of the blood-soaked land, though the resulting political entities seem as fragile as crystal.

The Western powers have agreed to play a role in maintaining a peace, another duty fraught with problems. A signal of that difficulty came Thursday when the United Nations, declaring it was buoyed by the stabilization of the conflict, announced it will withdraw a third of its peacekeeping force, dropping the number of deployed U.N. personnel to 21,000. No timing was disclosed.

The declining U.N. force will be replaced through an infusion of NATO ground troops. Clinton says the United States will send 20,000. However, Congress will have something to say about sending American ground troops into potential danger abroad. There is, for instance, the War Powers Act, which requires congressional approval for such a deployment, a requirement until now always honored in the breach.

No less difficult will be discussions on how to bring Russian peacekeepers into the program. Clearly, this prospective peace will need all the help it can get.

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