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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On Eve of Poll, Serbs Defiant

SARAJEVO -- Despite being isolated, demoralized and condemned, Bosnian Serbs are expected to flout the will of the outside world this weekend and vote overwhelmingly to reject a proposed peace plan.

The settlement formula that has already been spurned three times by the rebel leadership would give Bosnian Serb warlord Radovan Karadzic and his nationalist gunmen uncontested rule over half of the country and ostensibly stop a war that even its instigators in Serbia have tired of.

But following the same logic that has driven the insurgency, most Serbs living in the conquered and "ethnically cleansed" territory under the control of Karadzic forces are likely to heed his advice and vote "No."

Fatalism, martyrdom and the uniquely Balkan brand of inat -- self-destructive spite -- have combined to convince most of the estimated 700,000 residents of Serb-occupied Bosnia that they should press on with the flagging campaign to forge a Greater Serbia with territory seized from Bosnia and Croatia.

Serb fighters recently suffered their first territorial setbacks of the 28-month-old war, exposing erosion of their fighting spirit and a new vulnerability to offensives by the strengthening Bosnian government army.

The rebels also face the prospect of seeing a UN arms embargo lifted from the Bosnian government as punishment for Serb refusal to make any compromise in the name of peace. That would allow the Moslem-led Bosnian troops to import heavy weapons to balance the rebel arsenal supplied by nationalist patrons in Belgrade.

Even that support from the Serbian and Yugoslav capital is at stake in the Saturday and Sunday referendum: Belgrade authorities have purportedly cut off supplies to their Bosnian Serb proxies in an effort to pressure the rebels into signing the peace plan.

Serbia and Montenegro, the last two republics left in Yugoslavia, appear willing to settle for half of Bosnia instead of the 70 percent the Serbs now hold, in return for getting severe UN economic sanctions lifted.

But Karadzic and his radical military chieftain, General Ratko Mladic, have refused to heed the pressure from Belgrade, likely fearing that an end to the war could lead to their prosecution by a war-crimes tribunal.

Karadzic denounced the peace plan at a pre-election rally in nationalist Banja Luka as "tantamount to capitulation." He argued that compromise on the territory issue would dishonor the lives of Serbs who died in the land-grab.

Although Serbs comprised less than one-third of Bosnia's pre-war population, they claim at least two-thirds of its territory based on the argument that Bosnian Moslems, who made up 44 percent of the population, are really Serbs whose ancestors converted to Islam during the 500-year Ottoman occupation of the Balkans.

As the Sarajevo government troops eat away at the territorial spoils of the rebels, the first signs of a Serb-versus-Serb power struggle have emerged.

Yugoslav President Zoran Lilic, an ally of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic unleashed a scathing attack on Karadzic and his followers last weekend, accusing the rebel politicians of war crimes and rampant corruption.

Although the remarks are judged by Western diplomats to be too little too late to discredit Karadzic and convince Bosnian Serbs to support the peace plan, they may marginally dent the majority of "No" votes cast in the referendum.

The last internationally mediated settlement offer, drafted by former UN envoy Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen of the European Union, was rejected by a reported 96 percent of the Bosnian Serb population in a similar referendum in May 1993.