A U.S.-proposed Muslim-Croat federation is perhaps the least likely combination for the ethnic patchwork that is Bosnia-Herzegovina. But even if the union doesn't last, it could bring peace to the Balkans.
Under a new plan to be discussed in Washington over the weekend, Bosnian Muslims and Croats _former allies who have fought bitterly for months _ would form a federation, while Bosnian Serbs _ who have long sought to unite with Serbia _ would be free to form their own republic.
Bosnian Serbs, who control 70 percent of Bosnia, welcome the Muslim-Croat federation. By the time of its probable breakup, they already would have achieved their main goal: union with Serbia proper.
"We have nothing against a Muslim-Croat agreement. We have always advocated it because it is a step toward peace," said Nikola Koljevic, one of two vice presidents in the Bosnian Serb leadership.
Bosnian Muslims and Croats initially were allies against the Serbs, who rebelled against Bosnia's secession from Serb-led Yugoslavia two years ago. The Muslims and Croats later began fighting one another over territory.
The Muslim-Croat clash was so bitter and violent that few in Bosnia thought the two nations could ever again remain in one state.
"We didn't fight the mujahedeens to live with them again," Bosnian Croat soldier Anto Ceho told Bosnian Serb TV, using the derogatory name for the Muslims. "Anyone who thinks this is possible is crazy."
The U.S. administration apparently assumes that a Muslim-Croat federation, which could later transform into a confederation with Croatia proper, would protect Muslims and Croats and create a counterbalance to a "Greater Serbia."
"U.S. politicians apparently don't understand that the key for the peace in the Balkans is not the Muslim-Croat factor, but the Serb-Croat one," said Predrag Simic, a prominent independent political analyst in Belgrade.
Serbs and Croats were the two biggest nations in former Yugoslavia, and their relations have always been crucial in the region's troublesome history. Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats have had better ties among each other than with the Muslims who have been considered enemies of Christianity.
"But despite the fact that the Muslim-Croat federation could only be formal and short-lived, it could bring a fragile peace to Bosnia," Simic said.
Croatia's nationalist president, Franjo Tudjman, has paid lip-service to the idea of a Croat-Muslim confederation in the past while pursuing other avenues, such as cooperation with Serbia in a three-way division of Bosnia.
But under the U.S. pressure and possible sanctions against Croatia for its meddling in the Bosnian war, Tudjman reluctantly agreed to the Muslim-Croat federation.
Avoiding sanctions is a major reason for Croatia to agree to the negotiating track. Croatia also hopes for Western financial aid and entry into European economic and political bodies, including the NATO Partnership for Peace.
For Bosnian Muslims, the federation plan would give them access to the Adriatic Sea, which has been a main sticking point in previous concepts that would have left the republic as a shrunken and landlocked entity.
New cease-fire holds _ mostly
VITEZ, Bosnia-Herzegovina _ Muslim and Croat fighters continued shooting in central Bosnia on Friday despite a cease-fire, but U.N. officials said the violations were not significant.
The cease-fire, an attempt to build on a successful truce in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, began at noon.
In Vitez, where Muslims have 65,000 Croats surrounded, the United Nations reported 24 violations _ mostly small-arms fire _ in the first two hours of the agreement.
In nearby Kiseljak, peacekeeping spokesman David Fillingham said Muslim and Croat colonels were meeting to set up a truce monitoring commission.
Under the agreement, the two sides are supposed to withdraw their heavy weapons from the front lines or turn them over to peacekeepers by March 7.
The United States has called both sides to talks in Washington this weekend to discuss uniting and forming a confederation with Croatia.
Russia, meanwhile, decided to send 300 more peacekeepers to Bosnia, expanding its presence in the former Yugoslavia to 1,500.