After nearly four years of ethnic warfare that has horrified the world, the fighting foes of Bosnia have agreed to a U.S.-brokered cease-fire, a beaming President Clinton announced Thursday.
“Today we take another solid step on the hard but hopeful road to peace in Bosnia,” Clinton said in a hastily scheduled midday appearance in the White House briefing room. He spoke only hours after the deal was struck by his top envoy to the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke.
The president warned that difficult problems remained to be resolved, but nevertheless stressed that “this cease-fire … greatly increases our chances to end the war and achieve a peace.”
If peace comes to Bosnia, up to 25,000 U.S. troops could soon follow. Clinton has promised since 1993 to provide up to half of a NATO ground force charged with keeping any peace that’s struck there. Military planners say up to 50,000 NATO peacekeepers may be needed, although precise numbers must await final terms of any peace agreement.
This cease-fire is to begin Tuesday. It is to last 60 days or until a peace accord is reached. Initial peace talks mediated by U.S. diplomats will start around Oct. 25 at a U.S. site yet to be determined.
If all goes well, final terms of a peace accord will be decided at an international conference in Paris. Top White House aides are optimistic it could all be done within 60 days.
“Given the progress that we have made so far, in a rather short period of time, we remain hopeful that we can wrap up a peace agreement well within that time,” said Alexander Vershbow, special assistant to the president for European affairs.
Two modest conditions must be met before the cease-fire can begin. Full gas and electric utility service must be restored to Sarajevo, and the road between Sarajevo and Gorazde must be opened. If those terms are not met by Tuesday, the cease-fire will be delayed.
Many cease-fires have been called in Bosnia since 1991, only to fail as one side or another reopened hostilities in search of new military advantage. Indeed, even as Clinton spoke Thursday, some 100 Croatian troops moved into northwest Bosnia, raising fears of an 11th-hour offensive.
However, Croatia’s government affirmed its support for the cease-fire only hours before Clinton announced it, and top White House aides believe this cease-fire is far more promising than earlier ones because this time there is something close to a military stalemate on the ground.
“Our view is that the parties have reached the point where they see a negotiated solution in sight, and that they are prepared to stop fighting for that result and try to get it at the bargaining table,” Vershbow said.
Battle lines “have stabilized” in western Bosnia, he said, after several weeks of advances by Bosnian Muslim and Croat forces that were countered more recently by Serb forces pushing back on some fronts.
Arnold Kanter, an independent expert who served as undersecretary of state in the Bush administration, agreed that “the conditions on the ground are better … there are more reasons to be more optimistic now than anytime in the past.”
Yet Kanter still urged caution. Previous cease-fires have broken down “before the ink was dry,” he noted, and Bosnia remains divided between factions “with lots of scores to settle.”
In the past, Bosnian Serb forces broke ceasefires and ignored proposed peace plans because they were better able to achieve their goals through military aggression. But that changed last summer.
First the Croatian army mounted a counteroffensive that regained territory formerly seized by the Bosnian Serbs.
Next, after Serb forces shelled U.N.-protected “safe areas,” Clinton pushed NATO to launch the most massive aerial bombardment of its 46-year history against Serb positions.
Then, as the military balance in Bosnia shifted on the ground, Clinton dispatched Holbrooke to broker new peace proposals.