SARAJEVO, Yugoslavia -- Leaders of Yugoslavia's large Muslim community have made a dramatic shift in their policy, suddenly distancing themselves from Croatia's President Franjo Tudjman and offering what they said was a "historic agreement" to their traditional enemy -- the Serbs.
The offer was made last week at a meeting between Muslim and Serb politicians in the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Officials from the republic then flew to Belgrade to propose the plan personally to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
Both sides expect a formal agreement to be signed soon.
The preliminary agreement raises the possibility of heavily armed Muslim militias siding with Serbia in Yugoslavia's simmering civil conflict.
Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia last month. That triggered bloody clashes between militants of Croatia's 600,000-strong Serbian minority, mostly Christian Orthodox, and the republic's predominantly Roman Catholic Croatian population.
The Serbs, with memories of massacres by a pro-Nazi Croatian puppet state during World War II, oppose independence and look to the neighboring republic of Serbia for protection.
The Muslims, led by Muslim Bosnian Party Chairman Adil Zulfikarpasic, approached the Serbs the day after Mr. Tudjman said in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview that a division of Bosnia and Herzegovina was the best way to resolve the current conflict between the Serbs and Croats, Yugoslavia's two largest ethnic groups.
Up to that point, the Muslims -- about 48 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina's population -- were solidly behind Croatia's grab for independence.
Mr. Tudjman blamed the Muslims' policy shift on their own weakness, not his views. He said through a spokesman that "the Muslims lacked the strength and political wisdom to keep Bosnia and Herzegovina united, they were forced into a federation with Serbia."
The spokesman, Zvonko Lerotic, suggested that the Muslims were making a mistake because "the logic of Serbian policy [in a future Yugoslavia] is to create regions and thereby eliminate [the promised] federalism."
Bosnia is going to disappear, divided into a Serb and an Islamic region, both under Belgrade tutelage, Mr. Lerotic predicted.
In the opening talks with his former rivals, Mr. Zulfikarpasic made eloquent statement, recognizing that widespread killing is possible and agreement is the only solution.
"This is a land of killers. This is a time of sorrow," he said. "We are not Lebanon, where different religions and races live separately. We'll have 200,000 dead within a week. Why? Nobody is better than the other fellow, be it Serb or Croat or Muslim. Yet we have so much hate here. If hate could be sold, we all would be millionaires. But hate is a symptom of sickness.
"The only medicine for it is an agreement. We sincerely offer a historic agreement to the Serbs. If they don't accept it, let's have a massacre. The knives are sharpened, the guns are oiled."
Later, in an interview he said: "To avoid catastrophe, we Muslims decided to make a major move that would calm the situation. It's not a move out of desperation. It's our conviction that Yugoslavia has a future and that Bosnia and Herzegovina has a future in it."
After World War II, Muslims held the balance of power in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but leaned toward Croatia. A series of political missteps by Mr. Tudjman has infuriated Muslim religious and political leaders. But it was the talk of Bosnia-Herzegovina's division that pushed the Muslims over the brink.