Europe's bloodiest war in 50 years is over _ on paper.
After three weeks of tortuous negotiations, the presidents of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia initialed a deal Tuesday that gives half of Bosnia to the Serbs and half to a federation of Muslims and Croats. Technically, Bosnia remains a single country.
If the peace treaty holds, the war that brought the world "ethnic cleansing," killed more than 200,000 people and set former neighbors against each other in murderous rage will be over.
President Clinton announced the American-mediated breakthrough at the White House and reaffirmed his commitment to send 20,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia to enforce it. He reminded Americans of the "atrocities that have appalled people all over the world" and said U.S. money and might is essential if the fragile peace is to become permanent.
"Without us, the hard-won peace would be lost, the war would resume, the slaughter of innocents would begin again," Clinton said. "The parties have chosen peace. We must choose peace as well."
White House officials said the president probably will make a televised address to the nation soon.
Tuesday's settlement sets in motion a chain of events that could lead to the deployment of 60,000 NATO soldiers within weeks. If all goes well, the parties would meet in Paris to sign a peace treaty by mid-December. The bulk of U.S. forces would begin deployment several days later.
The next step is for NATO to quickly complete its military plan, which then will be submitted to Clinton for review and approval in a matter of days. Clinton said he will make sure the NATO plan is "clear, limited and achievable, and that the risks to our troops are minimized."
Agreements to end the murderous war in Bosnia have been signed before _ and have failed. Tuesday's signing ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was marked more by sober warnings than smiles.
"On paper, we have peace. To make it work is our next and our greatest challenge," said Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, who led the way during four months of shuttle diplomacy. "It has been a long and winding road for all of us, and it's not over. Far from it."
Until Tuesday's breakthrough, it looked as though the peace agreement might fall through even before it was completed. For days, the frenetic negotiations teetered between success and failure as the Americans and their European allies alternately coaxed and cajoled.
Late Monday night, U.S. mediators delivered a letter to the three Balkan delegations, saying the peace conference would be shut down Tuesday. They awoke to a snowstorm, afraid that angry disputes over tiny patches of territory would doom the talks. The final issue: the town of Brcko, a formerly Muslim and Croat town seized by the Serbs.
In the end, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic agreed to submit the town's fate to international arbitration. With that, at 10:45 a.m., a painfully wrought peace agreement was at hand.
The document _ an ungainly thing with 11 annexes, 102 maps and countless codas and subclauses _ calls for an independent Bosnia to become a country of two states. One state would be controlled by the rebel Serb factions that waged a war of secession. The other would be governed by a coalition of Muslims and Croats.
For the time being, at least, Bosnia would be a country of two armies _ or three, counting the NATO forces whose mission is to keep the rival sides apart and prevent a return to war. The agreement calls for foreign governments to train a civilian police force and prepare for free elections next year.
The day-to-day administration of Bosnia is one of the most difficult challenges ahead. Forty-three months of war have created 2-million refugees and left the infrastructure and the economy in tatters.
While the NATO military force is designed to make the country safe for rebuilding, it will take many hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid to pay for the work of renewal.
Clinton has said the United States is likely to spend perhaps $600-million on economic assistance to Bosnia, in addition to the estimated cost of $1.5-billion to deploy troops. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are working on a development strategy.
Wary of breakdowns in previous agreements, negotiators designed a series of conditions that the Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian governments must fulfill before they will receive foreign aid or recognition.
They include cooperation in disarmament, the return of refugees and human rights. U.N. economic sanctions against Serbia were suspended Tuesday, and Washington pledged to press for an end to the arms embargo that denied weapons to the weaker Muslim-led Bosnian government.
Particularly important to the Bosnians, the agreement makes economic help to Croatia and Serbia contingent on cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal, which has indicted more than 50 people on charges of committing crimes against humanity.
The political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, face charges of directing massacres and atrocities unseen in Europe since World War II. The peace agreement calls for them to be stripped of political power, although the details of their fate remain unclear.
Previous agreements have failed to stop the killing. Hopes for greater success this time rest on NATO's apparent willingness to commit troops and the willingness of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to promise peace in return for an end to the economic vise that grips his country.
Milosevic declared on state television that "the war is over."
Yet three Bosnian Serbs in the Serb delegation boycotted the initialing ceremony. One of them, Momcila Krajisnik, speaker of the Bosnian Serb Parliament, told his followers they should not and would not comply with its provisions.
"The agreement . . . does not satisfy even a minimum of our interest," he said. "We have warned Milosevic that no one has the right to sign such a plan."
Bosnian President Izetbegovic agreed to surrender half of prewar Bosnia to Serb forces that murdered and plundered their way to military gain. He found himself trading chunks of land with the enemy in return for a promise of peace.
Izetbegovic hardly thought it was fair, but he signed.
"To my people, I say this may not be a just peace, but it is more just than a continuation of war," the scholarly Izetbegovic said Tuesday. "In the situation as it is . . . a better peace could not be achieved."