Clinton delays bid for U.N. backing of force in Bosnia U.S. to await Serbs' referendum on peace plan


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, bowing to the urging o European allies, decided yesterday to wait another week before he seeks United Nations endorsement of a military intervention plan for Bosnia.

The Europeans, especially Russia -- a longtime friend of the Balkan Serbs -- had pressed Mr. Clinton to wait until Bosnian Serbs conduct a referendum on a U.N.-backed peace plan already rejected by their self-proclaimed Parliament. The referendum is next weekend.

In a second wait-and-see policy wrinkle, the administration said it would carefully watch a pledge by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to seal the border between Serbia and Bosnia as a way of cutting off arms to the Bosnian Serbs.

The decisions came after Mr. Clinton met with his top advisers, including Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, who briefed the meeting on the results of his consultations last week in Europe.

During the three-hour session, the finishing touches of a military plan were hammered out, and the president told Mr. Christopher to make another round of phone calls to European allies, administration officials said.

Publicly, White House officials clung to a position that Mr. Christopher had found a "consensus" among the European allies for stronger action to stop Bosnian Serb aggression. But it was clear that even though Mr. Clinton and his advisers had tailored military plans to ease European concerns, the allies still were not ready to use force as long as a peaceful option was available.

"The United States is hard-pressed to rally Europeans for a course of action when many want to wait for the referendum, a referendum that the U.S. thinks is bogus," a senior administration official said.

U.S. officials say they realize that the Serbs may just be playing for time. But they also say that keeping an open mind about the referendum and about Mr. Milosevic's pledge is one way to show the French, Italians, Danes, Germans, Russians and British -- especially the Russians and the British -- that they are flexible.

No one inside or outside Bosnia believes the referendum will approve the international peace plan drafted by Lord Owen, the European Community envoy, and Cyrus R. Vance, the U.N. envoy, who is a former U.S. secretary of state.

Moreover, many are skeptical of Mr. Milosevic's embargo -- after all, he helped arm and motivate the Bosnians Serbs in the first place. But White House officials said that with a harsh Western embargo wrecking Serbia's economy, the Serbian leader appears to actually be getting tough with the Bosnian Serbs.

"This is a chance to test Mr. Milosevic's sincerity," said White House communications director George Stephanopoulos. "As you know, he's offered now to really crack down. . . . We certainly would like to make this work."

Because of this delicate juggling act, Mr. Stephanopoulos and other official spokesmen were coy yesterday about what the Clinton administration actually has planned.

But one senior administration official spelled out the multipronged strategy pursued by the White House -- and which key officials said they still expect to launch. The significant elements of this plan, are:

* Seeking a U.N. resolution to lift the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims, then launching a program to to deliver weapons and provide the necessary military training. Mr. Christopher, in personal consultations with Europeans last week, referred to a detailed analysis of Muslim arms needs. One source of funding is amendment sponsored by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, and passed by Congress allowing transfer of $50 million worth of U.S. weapons stocks to the Bosnians.

* Air strikes by U.S. fighters and bombers and other NATO planes on Serbian targets for the specific purpose of preventing an all-out Serbian offensive during the period while Muslims acquire weapons and training.

* Additional allied air cover to help protect the "safe areas" designated by the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. Protection Force troops who, under French Gen. Philippe Morillon, would them assume the role of safe-area protectors.

This is a major concern of Europeans, who are demanding American assurances of protection for their troops already there who would likely become sudden and direct targets of Bosnian Serbs' wrath.

* A shift in the role and location of at least some of the U.N. troops, both to ensure their safety and move away from protecting relief convoys to protecting havens.

* Allowing Muslim forces to assume the job of protecting the humanitarian convoys of food and medicine. This would ease the workload on the U.N. forces and help in squeezing the Serbian forces. Currently, the U.N. forces must rely on Serbian cooperation in getting convoys through to Muslim areas. In the process, Serbs take a cut of up to 50 percent.

U.S. officials were also not ruling out a suggestion by Lord Owen -- apparently also pushed by France -- for the United States to commit some of its own forces to the U.N. ground forces. In the past, however, Mr. Clinton has repeatedly ruled out sending American troops into hostilities in the Balkans.

Originally, administration officials had planned to push for implementation of this plan by mid-week. Yesterday, however, they provided no timetable other than to say it would not occur until after the referendum, which is scheduled for next weekend.

Nor did they say when the president would seek congressional approval or give a nationally televised address explaining the merits of his plan to the American people.

It was eight days ago, that a grim-faced Mr. Christopher told reporters assembled at the White House that "the clock is ticking" on the Serbs.

But Clinton administration officials learned in the past week that nothing comes easy in getting other countries committed to action.

The first hurdle was the surprise announcement immediately after the Clinton administration began publicly talking of military action that the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, had endorsed the Vance-Owen peace plan that he had previously rejected.

That process bogged down early in the week when the self-styled Bosnian Serb "Parliament" sidestepped it, calling for the referendum. The second surprise was the announcement by Mr. Milosevic to seal his border with Bosnia to all but humanitarian supplies.

"It's a dynamic situation that continues to change," said Mr. Stephanopoulos. "We had intervening events this week."

The president, who spent yesterday afternoon on the golf course, was scheduled to discuss Bosnia tonight at the White House with Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and two Republicans from that committee, John W. Warner of Virginia and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, both of whom have just returned from the region.

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