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NEWS ANALYSIS : Tough Pace Set for Talks on Bosnia : Diplomacy: Hectic schedule and spartan quarters keep the pressure on Balkan leaders.


WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration is following a high-pressure, intensely focused strategy in its efforts to wring a peace settlement from the three warring Balkan factions now engaged in talks at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.

After three days of talks, the outlines of the U.S. plan are emerging: confront the Balkan negotiators with a detailed draft accord, pressure them to negotiate compromises and seize every opportunity to secure agreement on whatever issue may seem ripe, no matter how small.

The pattern is already being played out in Ohio.

Almost as soon as the opening ceremonies were over Wednesday, U.S. officials prodded the Serbs and Croatians into agreeing to speed up earlier negotiations on a question that could prove a barrier to a broad peace accord if it is not resolved soon: Who owns Eastern Slavonia?

Barely 24 hours later, the presidents of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina announced the first step in a return of ousted refugees from each area to their hometowns. Western strategists hope those returns will strengthen the fragile Muslim-Croat federation--at the expense of the Bosnian Serbs.

At the same time, the United States and its allies are using a variety of devices to keep up the pressure on all three sides: Although no one at the talks is being kept prisoner, the negotiators effectively are being confined to the spartan surroundings of the diplomatic compound at the air base--a transients' hotel and set of officers' barracks. The best restaurant available is in the officers' club.

And they are being bombarded with documents, high-pressure sales tactics and small-group meetings with U.S. and European mediators. Whenever the Balkan leaders do agree on anything, they are pressed to make the accord public--so that they cannot easily abandon it.

Moreover, for the moment at least, there is no deadline for reaching agreement. Allied negotiators said that they are willing to continue the talks as long as necessary--surely several weeks, at the outset--heightening pressure all the more.

Asked about shuttle diplomacy, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told reporters Friday that "the shuttling is going on by foot" as the mediators relay new compromises among the negotiators. "It's a work in progress," Burns declared.

Thursday night and Friday provided two cases in point.


On Thursday, chief U.S. mediator Richard Holbrooke distributed four major portions of the draft peace document to the three principal Balkan leaders--Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.

Thursday night, Holbrooke met privately with Milosevic to go over crucial issues of concern to the Serbs. The meeting resumed in mid-morning on Friday. Then Holbrooke's European counterpart, Carl Bildt, grabbed Milosevic and Izetbegovic for further talks.

At the same time, U.S. and German mediators met privately with Croatian and Bosnian leaders to iron out issues affecting the federation. In all, the various sides met in 15 to 20 other meetings on Friday alone.

The Administration has also added pressure in ways that some critics fear could backfire if it is not careful. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned that the United States would not send troops to take part in any peacekeeping efforts after an accord is signed as long as Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Radovan Karadzic and army Gen. Ratko Mladic remain in power.

Both have been indicted by the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

And on Friday, U.S. officials warned that they intend to make a major issue out of the refusal of the Bosnian Serbs to free Christian Science Monitor correspondent David Rohde, who has been missing since last Sunday.

Burns served notice Friday that, after days of unsatisfactory answers, the United States is "going to press this until we get answers." A few hours later, Serbian authorities admitted that they have the journalist in custody.

But critics fret that the tough U.S. stand on both issues ultimately could prove risky. While Karadzic and Mladic might be shoved aside quietly, making such a demand publicly could invite retribution from their followers, who are armed and care little about the consequences.

Exerting heavy pressure on the Serbs about Rohde could work either way, analysts said. On one hand, it could bolster the notion that the United States and its allies will be tough mediators. But it also could sidetrack some of the broader negotiations.

The pace so far has been so frenetic that mediators have decided to schedule a break of sorts. This weekend, the negotiators will be treated to a choice of movies, swimming, bowling and playing soccer--all at the air base.

The action will resume Sunday when mediators pepper the Balkan presidents with more documents--additional draft accords on issues such as human rights and return of refugees.

Elsewhere, John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for human rights, will be leaving for Bosnia on Saturday in an attempt to resume his investigation of alleged atrocities at Srebrenica and Banja Luka. His probe was interrupted last week by Serb refusals to cooperate.

Burns of the State Department told reporters Friday that the Administration still has not set a deadline for an accord. But diplomats acknowledged privately that it is unlikely negotiators from the warring factions will be willing to stay in Ohio indefinitely.

As a result, U.S. officials said, the mediators will be trying every trick in the book to get the three to come to some sort of workable agreement. "We have to do something quickly, in the next one to five weeks," Burns said Friday.

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