NATO gave peace a chance Friday and three nations grabbed for it. Hours after the alliance suspended three days of blistering raids, Serb, Croat and Muslim leaders agreed to sit down and talk peace. It will be the first direct meeting of all three parties to the Balkan war in two years.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, who led an intense diplomatic push even as NATO was bombing the Bosnian Serbs, said preliminary peace talks would probably begin late next week in Geneva.
The foreign ministers of Bosnia, Croatia and Yugoslavia - representing Bosnia’s rebel Serbs - will meet with American and European negotiators to discuss how to divide Bosnia among the warring ethnic groups.
“It will be a short conference which we hope will change the momentum of war into a momentum of peace,” Holbrooke said Friday night.
He hoped the meeting would “lay the groundwork for the international peace conference that will be held later at the highest levels.”
After 500 missions, NATO warplanes stopped hammering the Bosnian Serbs before dawn Friday, when it appeared an agreement might be near, officials said. NATO cautioned that the flights could resume at any time.
The four-year war has been marked by many peace talks, and all have failed. But State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns in Washington said the latest round stands a better chance because of recent Serb defeats.
“The situation has changed fundamentally,” he said.
Rebel Serbs took large swaths of Croatia and Bosnia in 1991 and 1992 after the two republics seceded from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.
But the rebels were driven out of their Croatian stronghold a month ago and have suffered their first defeats in Bosnia over the last several months. Bosnian Serbs have been beset by feuding between political and military leaders.
On Wednesday, two days after a Serb shell killed 38 people in the Sarajevo “safe area,” NATO launched its largest offensive ever in an attempt to knock out the extensive military installations that have allowed Serbs to control 70 percent of Bosnia and keep the capital under siege for 40 months.
A Western diplomat in Sarajevo said the bombing stopped to show Serbs that the West wants peace.
“The idea is to bomb them to the negotiating table - not to scare them away from it,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While cautioning that tough negotiations lay ahead, Holbrooke said all sides had agreed to divide Bosnia between the Muslim-led government and its Croat allies on the one side, and the Bosnian Serbs on the other.
They agreed to use as a starting point a U.S. plan to give the Serbs 49 percent of the country and the Muslim-Croat federation the rest.