WASHINGTON -- The United States, Russia and European allies bridged a deep rift on Balkans strategy yesterday and moved toward completing a comprehensive package of steps this weekend aimed at halting and containing the conflict, senior U.S. officials said.
Driven to a large degree by Russia, the emerging agreement tacitly accepts that the Serbs' territorial gains can't be reversed. But it holds out hope the main aggressors in Bosnia may be persuaded to yield some land they don't fully occupy, senior U.S. officials said.
As a result, it would largely scrap the 10-canton map proposed by the international mediators, Lord Owen and Cyrus R. Vance, that has been endorsed by Bosnia's Muslims and Croats and rejected by the Serbs.
The United States, in a shift, accepted the concept of protecting Muslim "safe areas" advanced by Europeans and Russia, although the actual means to protect them remain to be worked out.
The safe areas, which would include besieged communities like Sarajevo and Srebrenica, were designated by the United Nations earlier this month, but the U.N. did not send the force to protect them.
In the latest round of discussions, the United States has stuck to its refusal to dispatch American ground troops before the warring parties reach an agreement.
The United States also has backed away from its proposal to arm Bosnian Muslims, although this will be included in the plan as a possible negotiating tool, officials indicated yesterday. All sides already have agreed to tighten sanctions on the Bosnian Serbs, with monitors along the Serbian-Bosnian border.
The sudden progress toward a unified position among the United States and its allies emerged during meetings at the State Department among Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and their respective aides.
It marked a sharp change from earlier this week, when Mr. Christopher rejected Russia's plans for a "progressive implementation" of the Vance-Owen peace plan just after the Serbs had rejected it overwhelmingly and voiced disagreement with Russian and European plans to protect and enlarge "safe areas" using a larger United Nations force.
The package is expected to be firmed up in Washington meetings today and tomorrow between Mr. Christopher and British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.
"We're drawing closer together on a number of important elements," Mr. Christopher said last night after two meetings with his Russian counterpart.
Mr. Kozyrev reported "concrete" gains, but both refused publicly to spell out what they were.
Earlier this week, Mr. Christopher had all but washed his hands of trying to solve the Bosnian conflict, calling it a "morass" and focusing instead on moves to contain the war, including a deterrent force in Macedonia that may include military exercises and more monitors in the Serbian province of Kosovo.
Another official said there was a considerable effort to define what "safe areas" and "progressive enforcement" should mean, resulting in a "high degree of commonality."
Asked if the United States accepted the Russian and European "safe areas" plan, an official said: "The idea, yes. How you protect and enforce them is something to be worked out."
At yesterday's meetings, Mr. Christopher and Mr. Kozyrev first reached agreement on where their respective plans overlapped, officials said. This included border monitors and ways of keeping the conflict from spreading. Then they "took the points where there were questions" on each side and worked through disagreements.
The Kozyrev visit underscored the way Russia has climbed into the driver's seat in the Balkans, filling a vacuum created when the United States retreated from efforts to solve the crisis. Since the failure of Secretary Christopher's effort to create an allied consensus on action, the diplomatic initiative has shifted away from Washington.
The Russian approach envisions expanding the safe areas into broader regions of safety and peace. A U.S. official said all the allies agree it will be "real difficult" to force the Serbs to surrender much of their territorial gains.
Meanwhile yesterday, there were signs of increased domestic support for the "safe areas" plan, as well as of further division in the Clinton administration.
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat, said yesterday that the United States should "look seriously" at the idea even if it involved U.S. troops in sporadic fighting.
"I would be willing to look at it very, very hard," he said. He added that he did not expect such a plan could work without U.S. participation because the Europeans "would not send their troops in without U.S. support on the ground."
From inside the administration, an anonymous "U.S. official" argued in a New York Times Op-Ed article yesterday that U.S. troops should participate in protecting safe areas.
l "A multilateral force is needed to enforce peace in these havens and to show warring factions that it is to their advantage to silence their guns," the official wrote. The official also said European leaders "are right when they say that American concern over the killing in Bosnia cannot be fully taken seriously as long as the U.S. is unwilling to share all the risks."
The official also broke with President Clinton's preferred plan of arming Muslims, a plan rejected by Europeans and Russia. "The challenge in Bosnia is not to introduce new weaponry but to find ways of reducing the vast arsenals already there."