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Moves to punish Serbs in Bosnia are diluted Europeans tepid; peace in spotlight


WASHINGTON -- The military threat against Bosnian Serbs is being diluted by heightened attention to implementing a peace plan and lack of European enthusiasm for U.S. ideas on applying force.

The prospect of U.S. air strikes is widely believed to have been at least partially responsible for Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's reversal Sunday in agreeing to a peace plan mediated by Cyrus R. Vance and Lord Owen.

The White House insisted that his action had to be followed by concrete actions on the ground for the United States to be diverted from its course. Yet in the two days since, and despite continued Serbian assaults on Bosnian Muslim enclaves like Zepa, the clear White House warning has been overtaken by other currents:

At the United Nations, attention focused yesterday on the procedural nuts and bolts of assembling and deploying tens of thousands of peacekeeping troops to separate warring Serbs, Croats and Muslims. The Security Council received a closed-door briefing, and members sketched a resolution welcoming the agreement.

"There is a tendency for people to say, 'Karadzic has signed it, and we shouldn't pay too much attention to the Serb parliament,' " which is set to reconsider its vote against the plan today, said a West European diplomat at the United Nations.

Responding to Muslim accounts of a new Serbian attack on Zepa, Mr. Vance told reporters he had asked Mr. Karadzic and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to investigate and stop the fighting, Reuters reported.

In Washington, the prospect of sending 20,000 or more U.S. troops to join in a peacekeeping force has raised major questions about when, where and how they would be deployed and how long their mission would last.

In European capitals, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher's effort to produce an allied plan for military action has been complicated by preparations for the peacekeeping force.

Indeed, the chief product of his stop in Paris yesterday was the announcement that the United States and France had agreed to put a massive U.N. peacekeeping force into Bosnia quickly if Bosnian Serbs approve a peace plan but put off a decision about what to do if they rejected it.

At the same time, Mr. Christopher has been greeted by such strong reservations about the original proposals on force -- particularly the U.S. proposal to lift the arms embargo on the Muslims -- that they have effectively dampened his campaign to escalate pressure on the Serbs.

He left last night for Moscow, where considerable sympathy exists for the Serbian side in the Balkans war.

Before Mr. Christopher left, U.S. officials said that no final decision would be made on military action until his return. And he was not prepared even to declare at each stop whether individual countries had signed on to U.S. plans.

In fact his approach in London, according to a British official, was less one of selling a package of proposals in take-it-or-leave-it fashion than of presenting a set of American ideas.

The British, and later the French, made clear their objections in anonymous comments to American reporters, even though all agreed publicly that nothing had been ruled out.

"Clinton has backed himself into multilateralism," said a congressional aide who has followed events in Bosnia closely. "He's now finding out why some people think multilateralism is a crock. . . ."

Bosnian Foreign Minister Haris Siladzic commented bitterly at a luncheon here yesterday: "We hoped for a brief period that the XTC pressure was strong enough for the aggressor to back away. And they signed because of a credible threat of air strikes, not because of sanctions. Now, today, they are encouraged by the stand of European countries, which do not at this moment seem to be prepared to share the burden with the United States."

Dilution of the military threat began Sunday, when administration officials, despite their continued warnings, made no secret of their satisfaction over Mr. Karadzic's action.

President Clinton noted it prominently in a telephone call to Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, a Republican from Kansas., Mr. Dole reported in a television interview.

Lord Owen, asked by an interviewer whether the United States and its allies should "go forward with an application to military force," replied: "It would be crazy to do that. They obviously will discuss the military option in case something goes wrong, in case we are all being duped, but I don't think we have been."

The Clinton administration's problem in maintaining pressure has its roots in American and allied difficulty in finding any military course that would be ensured of success in stopping the fighting in the Balkans.

Despite the administration's belief that lifting a U.N. arms embargo for the Bosnian Muslims would increase pressure on the Serbs to comply with the Vance-Owen plan, Europeans and some American experts believe it would merely increase the bloodshed, prompting the Serbs to step up their attacks.

They anticipate problems in delivery, in training the Bosnians to use the equipment and fear that, given fighting also between Muslims and Croats, European forces helping to deliver relief to Croatian villages could come under Muslim fire.

Some of the weaponry, inevitably, will fall out of Muslim hands, they say. They fear that either arming the Muslims or air strikes would interrupt humanitarian relief and endanger European forces already on the ground.

"If you're trying to make the Muslims competitive, you'll have to do a lot of fighting for them," said John Steinbruner of the Brookings Institution. "You're not going to get a level playing field."

Bosnia's ambassador to the U.N., Muhamed Sacirbey, attempted in an interview to dispel most of the objections. The Bosnians don't require much heavy weaponry requiring advanced training, he said; what they need are vehicles, anti-tank and anti-artillery weaponry, light arms and, in particular, ammunition, he said.

He said he believed cooperation could be worked out with Croatians fighting alongside Muslims against the Serbs for delivery from Croatian ports. Other arms could be brought into airstrips in Muslim territory, he said.

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