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War in Bosnia overshadows EC meeting

Published Oct. 9, 2005

While Europe's harassed leaders tried their best to concentrate on dealing with unemployment and the recession here on Monday, they couldn't keep the ghost of Bosnia from attending their banquet.

Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic arrived on the opening day of the 12-nation European Community summit to seize the attention with still another passionate plea to lift the arms embargo to enable his rapidly disappearing country to fight back against the conquering Serbs.

Unable to address the full council, he made his plea to the three foreign ministers of the past, present and future holders of the EC presidency _ Britain, Denmark and Belgium _ who in turn tried to discourage him.

Instead, they pressed him to attend a Geneva meeting this week with the presidents of Serbia and Croatia, who have proposed dividing Bosnia-Herzegovina into three ethnic units in a loose confederation that would leave only a small slice for his Muslims, who make up nearly half of the population.

"In my view, it is not a good idea to lift the weapons embargo," Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen told both Izetbegovic and then the international media, even before the 12 EC leaders at dinner talked over the latest Bosnian developments.

It would only prolong the fighting, Petersen said, and might require the withdrawal of the U.N. forces in Bosnia trying to protect convoys of food aid.

Time and again Europe's major countries have repeated this argument both to Izetbegovic and to the United States when President Clinton pressed them to allow the Muslims to be armed.

(Diplomats here said German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had received a letter from Clinton asking him to support efforts to lift the arms embargo, Reuters news service reported. The diplomats, who asked not to be identified, said Kohl had pushed for the European Community to agree to the idea at what turned out to be a tense dinner meeting Monday night but had failed to win the agreement of reluctant partners.)

"Those who vote against the embargo are practically voting for the capitulation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and accepting a fait accompli and the use of force in international relations," an excited Izetbegovic told a jammed news conference at Copenhagen's Bella Center, where the EC summit is being held.

He said he would consult both his government and parliament before deciding whether to return to the Geneva conference with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Izetbegovic walked out of the meeting last week when they proposed dividing Bosnia.

In any case, Izetbegovic insisted, he would not attend any negotiations while the Serbs continued their attacks and occupation of more land as they had done during past negotiations. In two or three months, he told the EC troika earlier, nothing would be left.

The Serb-Croat proposal has virtually ended the plan by former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and former British Foreign Secretary David Owen to divide Bosnia into 10 disconnected regions rather than into three ethnic units.

A dejected Owen flew here to tell EC foreign ministers Sunday night that they had to face the facts and do the best they could for the Muslims.

But in the United States on Sunday, Vance indignantly denounced the new plan as dead wrong and said accepting it would be "a tragic mistake (that) will end up rewarding those involved in ethnic cleansing."

A senior British spokesman here said Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd told Izetbegovic that Europe would still insist on an independent Bosnia. The Geneva negotiations, Hurd said, were only about how that should evolve.

The spokesman added that a new plan was now beginning to emerge and "it is in Bosnia's interest that it should be considered." Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers was more blunt.

"We are working very hard to try to launch a new plan," Lubbers told Dutch journalists. "We are trying to make the best of it. All in all, it is not a happy day."

The arguments heard Monday have been heard many times before and only underlined the helplessness of a disunited Europe in dealing with the Serb aggression in Bosnia, even while EC leaders here continued to insist they would not support border changes brought about by force. Their final declaration today is expected to repeat that.

While Izetbegovic was making his desperate plea to their foreign ministers _ Hurd, Petersen and Belgium's Willy Claes _ the leaders themselves listened to Jacques Delors, president of the EC's executive commission, outline ideas to improve Europe's competitiveness vis-a-vis the United States and Japan, another issue that divides them.

By next year, Europe's unemployment is expected to reach its highest level in 30 years: 12 percent. That's more than 17-million people out of work, and leaders have been unable to stop the increase.

Only in Britain has the upturn begun, and that enabled Prime Minister John Major to push his ideas for making Europe competitive against those of France and others who insist that the EC's worker benefits be maintained.

None of this kept away the Bosnian ghost. While Izetbegovic was not invited to stay for dinner Monday night, he and Bosnia nevertheless dominated the conversation.