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Talking Peace in the Balkans

International efforts to broker negotiations between Croatia and rebel Serbs show difficulty in ending regional conflict

IT was chilly and wet when Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide and a United Nations security escort slipped out of Zagreb before dawn June 15 on a four-hour drive to Knin, the headquarters of Croatia's minority Serb rebels.

Mr. Eide, a UN mediator with the International Peace Conference on Former Yugoslavia, usually flies by UN helicopter.

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But it had been too late to reserve an aircraft when he accepted rebel Serb leader Milan Martic's offer of an 8 a.m. meeting. He had no choice. With only a day to go, Mr. Martic was about to torpedo new peace talks with Zagreb that UN, US, European Union, and Russian mediators had struggled for 10 weeks to set up.

In Knin, Eide tried for seven hours to change Martic's mind, but in vain. The peace talks were canceled amid concerns of a new war when the UN peacekeeping mandate in Croatia expires Sept. 30.

The Croats and Krajina Serbs have returned to saber rattling, and Western diplomats warn that a new war in Croatia could stoke the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, drag in rump Yugoslavia, and possibly spread elsewhere in the Balkans.

Eide's trip was just one link in a chain of double-dealing, time-wasting, and political game-playing, predominantly by the Serbs, that marked the latest international failure to broker peace in former Yugoslavia. As related by Western diplomatic sources, a rare inside account of the effort illustrates the problems and frustrations that have so beset international attempts to bring peace to the region. It also raises anew the question of whether international policymakers understand the political forces at work in the region.

Serb rebels overran almost a third of Croatia in their Yugoslav Army-backed revolt against the republic's June 1991 secession from the former Yugoslavia. Thousands were killed and tens of thousands left homeless. UN peacekeepers were deployed under a January 1992 cease-fire.

The Serbs declared independence for their Krajina region, which they seek to unite with Serbia and Serb-held territories in Bosnia. The international community regards Krajina as part of Croatia, but opposes the forceful restoration of Zagreb's authority over the region.

US, Russian, EU, and UN mediators opened their latest peace gambit by brokering a new cease-fire March 29 after a series of meetings between the two sides at the Russian Embassy in the Croatian capital. The two sides agreed to resume talks two weeks later on reestablishing trade, transport, and communications links. Thorny political issues were to be left until last. But things began to go awry.

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ATTACKED by hard-liners who control the balance of power in Krajina and want to use UN peacekeepers to ``freeze'' the front lines, Martic refused to join the talks unless they were held outside Croatia. Zagreb objected, seeing the demand as a ploy by Martic to gain capital over his domestic rivals by claiming that an invitation to a foreign venue represented a major step toward international recognition of Krajina's independence.

Martic then proposed that the talks be held at UN-controlled front-line crossing points. The mediators suggested alternating between towns on each side of the front, but Martic refused. The new cease-fire, meanwhile, grew ever more fragile.

The mediators then hit on another idea. They told Martic that in return for negotiating in Croatia, he could meet the co-chairmen of the conference on former Yugoslavia, Lord David Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg, in Geneva. The mediators reasoned that the one-time traffic cop would still win some political capital. But the initial response was negative, and a frustrated Eide announced May 26 that the negotiations were suspended.

The mediators turned to their Russian colleague, Vitaly Churkin, to pressure Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. In talks with Mr. Milosevic and Martic, Mr. Churkin won their agreement to resume talks with the Croats June 16-17 at Plitvice, a lakeside resort in Serb-held territory. In return, Martic would get his meeting with Mr. Owen and Mr. Stoltenberg.

Martic returned home boasting that his invitation to Geneva was a diplomatic breakthrough. Croatia was furious.

At their June 7 meeting with Martic, Owen and Stoltenberg formally announced the Plitvice talks. Privately, Martic and Hrvoje Sarinic, the chief Croatian negotiator, agreed to discuss water and power re-connections vital to both sides.

Martic also agreed to allow Croatian journalists to cover the Plitvice talks, and on this petty item the initiative was to founder again. Back in Knin, Martic succumbed to fresh attacks from his hard-liner foes. He told mediators that because only two Serbian reporters had covered the Zagreb talks, only two from state-run Croatian media could go to Plitvice.

Backed by the mediators, the Croats insisted that five Croatian reporters be allowed at Plitvice and no limits be placed on those working for international media. Martic refused, first in talks June 14 with US Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith and the next day with Eide.

At a news conference June 16, the mediators could little hide their disappointment. Cautioned Eide: ``It is of the greatest importance that the parties refrain from any precipitous action.'' There is no guarantee that his warning will be heeded.

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