WASHINGTON -- As a sense of urgency waned in Washington to confront the conflict in the Balkans, Europeans stepped up pressure on the United States to send ground troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina to help protect designated Muslim "safe areas."
The new pressure, which brought a dismissive response from Washington, effectively shifted the diplomatic initiative on the Balkans from Washington to Europe and increased European leverage in shaping any military intervention.
French President Francois Mitterrand and Lord Owen, the European Community envoy, urged last week that the United States contribute to United Nations peacekeeping forces that have been guiding relief convoys but are now also nominally protecting U.N.-designated "safe areas."
British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd yesterday joined the call following a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, of European Community foreign ministers. "I think it would be welcome," he said.
"Alongside the options which have been discussed before is now this whole question of safe zones, endorsed unanimously by the Security Council a few days ago, and the question is how that is to be done and this, too, we are discussing with the Americans," Mr. Hurd said at a press conference.
The U.N. resolution designating Sarajevo and several smaller towns as safe areas contained no enforcement provisions.
But Madeleine Albright, U.S. envoy to the United Nations, used its adoption as an occasion to warn Serbs that they risked military action if they continued to defy the United Nations.
In addition, Mr. Christopher told European allies last week that the United States would use its air power to defend U.N. troops protecting Bosnian enclaves.
U.N. forces on the ground, meanwhile, are stretching their mandate and moving toward protecting the safe areas, a task they lack the numbers and weaponry to carry out.
Their approach combines negotiation with Serbian military leaders and the implicit threat of outside force if they are attacked.
This has added to European demands that both the United States and Russia play a role in peacekeeping there.
An administration official, while not flatly ruling out the prospect that U.S. troops would be added to the U.N. force, said last night, "It's one of the options out there, [but] it's at the bottom of the list."
"They have a much different approach, and they're asking us to sign on to that approach," the official said of the Europeans.
Mr. Clinton has been determined not to send U.S. ground troops into hostilities. He would be willing to inject them into the Balkans only after a peace plan is accepted by all parties.
In the interim, the United States was pushing the idea of arming the outgunned Muslims and bombing Bosnian Serb targets to prevent the Serbs from launching an all-out final assault.
The Europeans consistently have said that bombing Serbian targets would bring quick and potentially disastrous retribution on their peacekeeping troops.
The European assumption appears to be that Washington would share the same anxiety if U.S. troops were there.
The U.S. strategy, pressed unsuccessfully by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher in Europe last week, has been temporarily abandoned.
The State Department and the White House confirmed yesterday that President Clinton had decided Saturday not to move forward with military action until after this weekend's Bosnian Serb referendum.
The Bosnian Serbs are to vote on a peace plan that would split Bosnia into 10 semi-autonomous ethnic enclaves.
"As a practical matter it appears that they [the European allies] will want to await the results of the referendum before we can agree on final steps," said Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman.
"Bosnia is in a holding period at this time," Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary, said while accompanying Mr. Clinton on a speechmaking trip to Cleveland.
It became clear yesterday that Europeans considered the referendum irrelevant, but had used Russia's belief in its importance to persuade Washington to delay military action.
A senior administration official said that Strobe Talbott, special envoy in charge of relations with Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union, communicated Moscow's desire to wait for the vote.
At Saturday's White House meeting, Mr. Christopher also told Mr. Clinton that it would take "an awful lot of stroke" by the president personally to persuade the European allies to support his military policy.
Mr. Clinton evidently concluded that the task of enlisting European and Russian support would be easier after both the referendum and a pause to give newly imposed Serbian sanctions on the Bosnian Serbs a chance to work.
In the meantime, the weeklong delay in proceeding with U.S.-led military action has created a vacuum that, among other things, allowed:
* Renewed fighting between Muslims and Croats in Bosnia, particularly around the town of Mostar. Political leaders of both sides were reported to have agreed to a truce yesterday, but it was unclear whether fighters on the ground would respect it.
* A heightened emphasis by the United States' European allies on waiting for sanctions, imposed by the United Nations and by Belgrade, which had sealed its borders with Bosnia to put pressure on Bosnia's Serbs.
The new reliance on Belgrade to cooperate with the West has practically made a de facto ally out of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who has been accused by the United States of war crimes.
U.N. observers found what one calls a "humanitarian catastrophe" in the besieged eastern Muslim enclave of ZEPA. They say only 50 people were found in the town. About 30,000 people lived in Zepa and surrounding villages before fleeing last week's Serb siege. Most of them are believed to have fled to the hills.
Heavy shelling was reported in MOSTAR. U.N. officials feared for the safety of up to 1,000 Muslim civilians hustled by Croat militias out of town and interned in a football stadium in a new bout of "ethnic cleansing."
The European Community in BRUSSELS called on the United States and Russia to supply small numbers of troops to help protect six U.N.-declared "safe zones" for Bosnian civilians. The request came as an apparent response to U.S. canvassing in Europe for support of a tougher policy against Bosnia's rebel Serbs. The EC also offered to send monitors to the border between Serbia and Bosnia to help enforce a blockade declared by Serbia.
The United States, shifting position, said in WASHINGTON it would delay a final decision on military action in Bosnia.