BOSNIAN Serb leaders yesterday rejected the peace plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina, triggering new United Nations sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro and raising the likelihood of international military action in the Balkans.
The decision provoked harsh condemnation from European Community mediator Lord David Owen hours after the end of an all-night session of the self-styled Bosnian Serb parliament in this agricultural backwater in northeastern Bosnia.
"I think that confrontation is now inevitable and will be faced up to by the world community," Lord Owen said in a "final message to the Serbian people," as he left Belgrade following a five-day last-ditch effort to save the peace plan he authored with former UN special envoy Cyrus Vance.
"It will be faced up to economically, politically, and if [the Bosnian Serbs] continue [to fight], in my view, militarily," Owen said. "They collectively have decided to pursue the war, and they will be held accountable by the world for that decision."
Said one Western diplomat: "It has been made abundantly clear in numerous statements from both sides of the Atlantic that options that were discarded before will now have to be reviewed."
The grim assessments underscored a recognition that the stiffer UN sanctions will almost certainly fail to reverse the Bosnian Serbs' stand.
A glimmer of hope had been raised by a last-minute appeal to the Bosnian Serbs to accept the peace plan from Presidents Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Momir Bulatovic of Montenegro, and Dobrica Cosic of Yugoslavia.
"A refusal means the prolongation of bloodshed," said the appeal letter delivered in person to the Bijeljina meeting by Yugoslav Foreign Minister Vladislav Jovanovic. Diplomats express reservations
Western diplomats, however, expressed deep reservations over the letter's sincerity. They cited its lateness, and questioned the sudden reversal of unstinting support for the Bosnian Serbs, especially from Mr. Milosevic, the main architect of their drive to create a self-declared state and merge it with Serbia.
Owen praised the appeal, but said Serbia and Montenegro, the two remaining republics of rump Yugoslavia, would have to curtail the economic and military support they provided to the Bosnian Serbs in their conquest of about 70 percent of Bosnia. Owen noted that such a cutoff should include a withdrawal of regular Yugoslav Army troops that he claimed have been fighting inside Bosnia despite Belgrade's repeated denials.
The Bijeljina meeting was called in response to the UN vote to tighten sanctions imposed last May unless Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic signed the crucial third part of the Vance-Owen peace plan - a map dividing Bosnia into 10 largely autonomous, ethnic-based provinces. That map was accepted last month by Bosnia's Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, and Bosnian Croat leader Mate Boban.
Mr. Karadzic refused to sign the map because three provinces designated as Serb-dominated are not contiguous, thwarting his and Milosevic's goal of merging Bosnian Serb-held territories with Serbia, Montenegro, and Serb-conquered areas of adjacent Croatia. Serb parliament outraged by West
The Bijeljina gathering was clearly outraged that the West was considering military intervention just as Bosnian Serb forces neared the completion of their military campaign.
"We are in a better position and they should have counted on that," said Dragan Djokanovic, a member of Karadzic's self-styled government.
The parliament sought to cushion the impact of its rejection of the plan by voting to submit it to a May 15 referendum. But that decision was widely viewed as insignificant because the outcome seems a foregone conclusion.
Owen tried to win Karadzic's acceptance with stronger security guarantees for a proposed UN-protected corridor that would run from Serbia, across northern Bosnia, to a proposed Serb-dominated province hinged on the town of Banja Luka.
Bosnian Serb forces currently control the entire corridor.
But the map would require them to relinquish parts running through provinces designated as Croat- and Muslim-dominated.
That remained unacceptable to Karadzic because the corridor is the means by which Serbia arms and feeds large parts of Bosnian Serb-held territory in Western Croatia.
It is also vital for Karadzic to retain the entire corridor in order to ensure the territorial contiguity indispensable to the goal of uniting Serb-held areas in Croatia and Bosnia with rump Yugoslavia.
In a concurrent development that also doomed Owen's mission, the weekend saw the Bosnian Serbs and Croatian Serbs take a major step toward "unification."
Meeting on Saturday in the northern Bosnian town of Bosanski Novi - cleansed of its Muslim Slav residents and renamed Novi Grad - the self-styled Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb parliaments declared at a joint session the creation of a single assembly, which was empowered to select a government and write a constitution.