Bosnian Serbs say they're ready to cancel a referendum seen as the first step toward throwing off international control of their ethnic-mini state, Bosnia's international administrator told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The referendum has been described as the greatest threat to peace in Bosnia since a 1995 treaty ended a devastating three-year civil war.
The referendum asks Serbs to voice their approval or disapproval of the actions of an administrator appointed by the U.N. Security Council to oversee the running of the nation, which was divided into ethnic Serb and Croat-Bosniak halves after the war.
Bosnian Serbs have been widely expected to vote against the administrator. That would allow the leader of their mini-state to ask its parliament to stop cooperating with the administrator and the federal court and prosecutor's office that the administrator created in 2005.
International officials are deeply fearful that, as a result, the Bosnia Serb mini-state could become a haven for war criminals and other fugitives from the law.
The international administrator, Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, told the AP in an exclusive interview that he had given Bosnian Serbs until the end of the week to cancel the vote planned for mid-June, or he will do it himself.
Inzko, who answers to the U.N. Security Council, has almost unlimited power over Bosnia's state institutions under the U.S.-brokered Bosnian peace treaty, which allows him to annul or impose laws or even fire local politicians, including presidents.
He told the AP that the Bosnian Serbs have indicated that they are considering options ranging from calling off the referendum to postponing it, "so we will wait a few more days, but of course, it is clear that only to postpone the referendum is not enough."
Bosnian Serbs say the federal court is biased against them and Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik wants to hold the referendum to reflect what he says is a widespread rejection of Bosnia's federal institutions, especially the war crimes court.
Inzko said none of the regions can question the powers of any federal institutions or his own powers, and therefore the referendum as such was not only illegal, but jeopardizes the peace agreement and everything that was achieved since the 1992-95 war ended in Bosnia.
Over the past week, Inzko received support from most of the members of the U.N. Security Council and the White House to stop any further erosion of the Bosnian state.
"Support was never stronger," he said upon his return from the U.S. "Maybe this was the strongest support for the last three years since I am in this office."
Inzko said the EU and the Serbs want judicial reform, but that the Serbs want to get rid of the federal court and have all cases be handled by their regional court. The EU wants stronger federal institutions, including the federal court that deals with war crimes and corruption.
Dodik said Thursday that "at this moment we are still planning a referendum, but we are engaged in a dialogue which could result in some other solutions."
He explained he would be ready to recommend that the Bosnian Serb regional parliament cancel the referendum, if a senior EU official would assure him that the Bosnian Serb complaints about the state court would be addressed.
Such an option would allow him to end the standoff and save face, political analyst Tanja Topic said. He could then "try to portray the capitulation as a victory," she said.
Meanwhile, top EU foreign official Catherine Ashton was heading to Bosnia for talks on Friday with Dodik and other officials, said Ashton's spokesman Michael Mann.
"The European Union is reaffirming its clear commitment to the European perspective of Bosnia and Herzegovina," Ashton said in a statement on Thursday.
"We want to see the outstanding issues addressed and we want to see all the necessary reforms set in motion. We stand ready to help Bosnia and Herzegovina move forward."