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Bosnia Reform Talks Resume But Parties Opposed

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt
SARAJEVO (Reuters) -- EU and U.S. envoys have kicked off a second round of crucial talks on Bosnia's future, even though most of the country's Serb, Croat, and Muslim leaders said a proposed reform package was unacceptable.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg initiated talks with Bosnia's leaders in early October on ways to overcome a deadlock that could jeopardize stability in the country and the wider region.

On October 19, they handed over to the leaders a "comprehensive reform package," including measures to end Bosnia's status as an international protectorate and make constitutional changes that would speed up integration with the European Union.

Bosnia's rival ethnic groups fought a three-year war from 1992 to 1995 in which 100,000 people were killed. The conflict, Europe's worst since World War II, ended with the Dayton peace accords that created two autonomous regions, the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska.

Local politicians immediately criticized the latest proposed reforms, with the loudest disapproval coming from Bosnian Serbs who fear an erosion of their autonomy.

"We said 'no' and we shall say 'no' each time a fundamental position of Republika Srpska has been questioned," Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik said.

Officials warned without a deal, Bosnia was facing isolation in a region where other countries are moving toward EU membership.

'Last Chance'

"This is not business as usual," said EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn. "This is the last chance for this generation of Bosnian politicians to put Bosnia-Herzegovina on the European path."

Rivalry between Bosnia's two ethnic entities has deepened in recent months, effectively blocking the work of the central government and reforms needed for EU and NATO integration.

Separatist Serbs have openly confronted Bosnia's international peace envoy, challenging his role and decisions and threatening to hold a referendum on secession from Bosnia.

While Serbs complained about "dramatic changes to the Dayton constitution," as Dodik described it, the Bosnian Muslims and Croats found the proposed reforms inadequate.

"The document is absolutely unacceptable," said Bosnian Croat leader Dragan Covic. "We cannot have a two-entity structured Bosnia-Herzegovina," he told the "Dnevni Avaz" daily.

Bosnian Muslim leader Haris Silajdzic also said the reform package was unacceptable. Only Sulejman Tihic, the head of the largest Muslim party, the SDA, said the document was a "good starting point and step forward."