Clinton calls Bosnia talks 'last chance' Balkan chiefs gather for negotiations brokered by U.S.; 'Defining moment'; Top issues include use of U.S. military, land disputes, war crimes


WASHINGTON -- Talks to end the war in Bosnia open today outside Dayton, Ohio, with American mediation efforts clouded by congressional challenges and new evidence of Serb atrocities.

As Wright-Patterson Air Force Base prepared to welcome the leaders of Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia, President Clinton warned Congress against attempts to undercut anticipated U.S. participation in a peacekeeping force that would be a vital element in settling the most horrific violence in Europe since World War II.

"We've come to a defining moment in Bosnia," the president said yesterday, adding, "It may be the last chance we have for a very long time" to end the war.

If the United States fails to keep its commitment to join the NATO-led peacekeeping force, he said, other members of the Atlantic alliance may refuse to participate in the operation and a "hard-won peace in Bosnia could be lost."

Mr. Clinton's comments followed a House vote Monday that showed strong congressional resistance to sending U.S. troops to Bosnia. The vote also reflected growing congressional demands that Mr. Clinton build a public case for his Balkans policy.

The president's remarks highlighted the stakes in the talks today, half a world away from the scenes of carnage in Bosnia. The outcome

could open a new chapter in the bloody history of the former Yugoslavia and in the United States' relationship with Europe, including Russia.

The Dayton meeting is supposed to build on previous agreements that laid out [See Bosnia, 13A] a general

Bosnia, from Page 1A]

peace framework, spelled out broad constitutional principles and began a nationwide cease-fire. While a country called Bosnia-Herzegovina will be officially preserved, it would be divided into two entities with strong self government: a Bosnian-Croatian federation and a Serbian republic.

The toughest issues still to be worked out include territorial boundaries and the future government of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.

Failure by the three Balkan presidents -- Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnia's Alija Izetbegovic and Croatia's Franjo Tudjman -- to reach an accord in coming weeks could doom the region to more violence and increase the danger of a wider war, said Mr. Clinton.

An agreement would require sending U.S. troops into harm's way in Europe for the third time this century, this time to enforce a peace agreement. A settlement could also bring an uncertain new military partnership between the United States and Russia in sharing peacekeeping responsibilities.

"It is going to be very, very hard to get peace agreements in Dayton," said chief U.S. mediator Richard C. Holbrooke, who refuses to predict how long the talks will last or even to define success. "We may come out of Dayton with partial agreements, or we may come out of Dayton with something bigger, or we may come out of Dayton with nothing."

U.S. mediation efforts have been complicated not only by Congress but by mounting evidence of atrocities that occurred early this summer when the Bosnian Serbs overran the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, a town declared by the United Nations to be a "safe area."

Human rights groups and U.S. intelligence agencies have since produced evidence of the systematic mass executions of thousands of Muslim men and boys by Serb forces.

In addition, John Shattuck, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights, says Serbs detained more than 1,000 Muslims in northwest Bosnia in early October. Credible accounts indicate some 200 were killed, he said.

The reports of atrocities have fueled demands by the Muslim-led Bosnian government that Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic be removed from power and turned over to the U.N. war crimes tribunal as part of any peace agreement.

Isolating the Bosnian Serb leadership is part of the U.S. strategy. But the new atrocity reports have also raised awkward questions about the relationship between the Clinton administration and Serbian President Milosevic, who is widely seen as having inspired the Serbs' aggressive campaign of "ethnic cleansing" that began in 1992.

"He's the one that's ultimately responsible for having started these crimes," Bosnia's Foreign Minister, Muhamed Sacirbey, charged yesterday.

The administration sees Mr. Milosevic, who will lead a negotiating team representing both Serbia and the self-styled Bosnian Serb republic, as crucial to making any settlement work, and has started easing him out of international pariah status.

Although the United States downgraded diplomatic relations with Serbia in 1992, Mr. Milosevic received the same red-carpet, honor-guard welcome in Dayton yesterday as the presidents of Bosnia and Croatia.

And the administration has promised that once a peace accord is implemented, sanctions imposed against Serbia earlier in the war will be lifted.

Administration officials insist that no effort will be made to shield Mr. Milosevic from the U.N. war crimes probe. But Mr. Holbrooke said Monday that "we have no hard evidence linking him to these events" in Srebrenica.

On top of these problems, U.S. officials are having increasing difficulty maintaining peace between Bosnia's Muslim-led government and Croatia, which together would control half of Bosnia after a peace agreement.

The idea of sequestering warring leaders and pressuring them to strike a deal is loosely based on the 1978 Camp David talks, in which former President Jimmy Carter brokered peace between Israel and Egypt, keeping the leaders of those two countries at the presidential retreat for 11 days.

The Dayton talks will be "infinitely more complicated," says Mr. Holbrooke, with three warring countries and six peace brokers, including the United States, European countries and Russia.

The U.S. hosts are sparing no effort to create a negotiating atmosphere as removed from Balkan realities as possible. Even the flat Midwestern landscape is a sharp change from Bosnia's mountainous terrain. U.S. officials extracted promises from each of the leaders not to speak to the press during the talks.

All sides have a strong interest in ending the fighting: Mr. Milosevic is anxious to rehabilitate himself internationally and ensure the lifting of stiff economic sanctions against his country. Mr. Izetbegovic, the Bosnian leader, can't be confident of winning back significantly more territory from the Serbs, and needs Western help to retain some semblance of a country.

Croatia's President Tudjman has accomplished his key objectives, ousting ethnic Serbs from Krajina, a strategic region, and cemented control of Croat-populated areas of Bosnia. Now he needs to avoid being lumped by world opinion into the same camp as the Serbs.

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