WASHINGTON -- The United States tried yesterday to halt a move in the United Nations Security Council to guarantee Muslim "safe areas" in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a policy that could involve U.S. troops.
Washington also is concerned that the plan put forward by Russia and France will in effect create a new country in which the Muslims would have sovereignty only in their safe areas.
The Clinton administration announced that the United States would not attend a scheduled meeting Friday of U.N. Security Council foreign ministers. The meeting was called by Russia, JTC which holds this month's presidency of the council.
The U.S. move exposed what a West European diplomat described as a "very messy" rift between Washington and the other permanent members of the Security Council over what to do in Bosnia after Bosnian Serbs appeared to vote overwhelmingly against a plan accepted by their Muslim and Croatian rivals.
The negative vote came in a Bosnian Serb referendum, the results of which are to be made public today.
A senior U.S. official said the administration feared that the Security Council would impose a hasty deadline on what to do next in Bosnia.
A series of initiatives over the past few days point to an emerging Security Council plan for a stopgap effort to contain the Bosnian conflict that includes:
* Monitoring of the border to prevent Serbian arms and fuel from flowing to the Bosnian Serbs.
* Beefed-up United Nations protection of Muslim "safe areas," with potentially tens of thousands of additional U.N. protective troops.
* Increased numbers of monitors in Macedonia and the Serbian province of Kosovo to prevent a spreading of the conflict into new areas that could trigger a wider Balkan war.
France and Russia are the key forces behind the new measures, described by one Western diplomat at the United Nations as a "stealth policy."
France last week circulated a memo on protection of five, U.N.-mandated safety zones, including Sarajevo and Srebrenica, where Muslims are encircled by Serbs. The areas had been designated for protection by the U.N. without any meaningful force to accomplish that task.
The French memo called for assigning up to 40,000 U.N. troops to the enclaves and backing them up with air power.
In the most expansive option outlined by France, U.S. and Russian ground troops would be added to the U.N. protective force already in Bosnia.
Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev, promoting the idea of a step-by-step peace plan for Bosnia, set out yesterday on a week-long series of meetings in the former Yugoslavia and Western Europe.
Mr. Kozyrev was scheduled to finish his voyage at the United Nations in New York for the Friday foreign ministers' meeting.
Ostensibly called to discuss U.N. peacekeeping operations worldwide, the Security Council was expected to use the occasion to endorse a step-by-step peace plan, which diplomats have dubbed "progressive enforcement."
Although no draft resolution had been circulated by yesterday, diplomats said Russia intended to try to win Security Council endorsement for the border monitoring and the protection of the five safe zones.
Moscow was also seeking Security Council endorsement of the peace plan mediated by Lord Owen for the European Community and Cyrus R. Vance for the United Nations. The plan has already won the endorsement of the Muslims and Croats in Bosnia, plus Serbia. But it was rejected by the Bosnian Serbs.
The United States doesn't flatly oppose any elements of the plan being developed in the Security Council, and particularly supports close and effective monitoring of the Serbian-Bosnian border.
It also has indicated some willingness to dispatch American ground troops to still-peaceful Macedonia as part of a U.N. monitoring force.
However, U.S. officials want to dispel the idea that monitoring the Serbian border and the protection of Muslim "safe areas" amounts to a partial implementation of the Vance-Owen peace plan, which calls for 10 autonomous ethnic provinces.
As a senior U.S. official put it, "How in the hell can we say [the safe zones represent] implementation of Vance-Owen?" Rather, it could amount to a division of Bosnia between Croats and Serbs and relegating Muslims to long-term refugee camps, the official said.
A plan for next steps suggested by U.S. officials would include tightened sanctions, monitoring of the Serbian-Bosnian border, monitors in Macedonia and Kosovo and use of American air power -- not troops -- to protect the Muslim safe areas.