WASHINGTON -- The United States joined Russia and European allies yesterday in a Balkans strategy that would use force to protect Muslim enclaves but rely on diplomacy and sanctions to roll back Serbian aggression.
In a plan that ended months of discord, the United States committed its air power to protect and rescue United Nations troops if they come under attack while guarding six Bosnian towns designated as "safe havens" by the U.N. Security Council.
"We are determined that the international community will act together based upon shared responsibilities and a common purpose to bring increased pressure to bear on those engaged in the conflict in Bosnia," Warren M. Christopher, secretary of state, said at a news conference after a meeting with allied foreign ministers.
"Each of us, along with our colleagues in other capitals and the United Nations, have worked hard to find a common approach that will work to stop the killing in Bosnia, prevent the conflict from spreading and bring concerted pressure on the parties to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict," Mr. Christopher said.
U.N. protection of the towns will require the deployment of at least several thousand more U.N. troops in Bosnia in addition to the almost 10,000 peacekeepers already there.
The United States, however, would not be expected to defend the towns themselves, and it would not be required to contribute ground troops to the United Nations' peacekeeping effort.
But a senior U.S. official could not rule out the possibility that in the course of a rescue mission, a small number of U.S. troops might have to set down on the ground temporarily.
The plan announced yesterday would place international monitors on the border between Bosnia and Serbia to ensure that Serbia keeps its word not to supply weapons to Bosnian Serbs.
The plan includes warning Croatia that it could face economic sanctions if it assists the Bosnian Croats' campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against Muslims. It also calls for the rapid creation of a war crimes tribunal, some form of U.S. deterrent force to keep the war from spreading into Macedonia and increased "international monitoring" in the Serbian region of Kosovo, which has an ethnic Albanian majority.
France already has drafted a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing peacekeepers to protect the designated towns -- Srebrenica, Gorazde, Zepa, Tuzla, Sarajevo, and Bihac -- and to use force, if necessary, to respond to attacks.
The Security Council is expected to discuss the resolution this week, as well as the policy formulated yesterday by the United States and its allies.
President Clinton voiced skepticism about safe areas Friday. But yesterday in New Hampshire, when asked if the new plan would do any good, he said, "It could. It could." Then he turned and added, "At least we're together again."
The plan was announced by Mr. Christopher and the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Russia and Spain after a brief meeting at the State Department.
"The United States is prepared to meet its commitment to help protect UNPROFOR forces in the event they are attacked and request such action," said a joint communique issued after the talks, referring to the United Nations Protection Force.
Europeans, Russians prevail
The five-power plan essentially adopts European and Russian ideas for halting the 14-month war among Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats. It puts off indefinitely President Clinton's preferred course of arming the outgunned Muslims and using air strikes against Serbian targets to prevent an all-out assault while the Muslims are re-equipped.
It relies solely on continued sanctions and negotiations to press the Serbs to yield territory acquired by aggression and "ethnic cleansing." Serbs now control 70 percent of Bosnia; they would have been required to withdraw to 43 percent under a peace plan devised by Cyrus R. Vance of the United Nations and Lord Owen of the European Community.
For its success, the plan depends heavily on cooperation from Serbia, which has backed away from the goal of a greater Serbia but has made only a dubious commitment to prevent weapons and fuel from flowing to its former Serbian allies in Bosnia.
"The evidence on that is disappointing up until now," said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters yesterday. As to whether Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic will allow outside monitors at border posts, the official acknowledged that Mr. Milosevic had sent "conflicting signals."
The plan also depends on the threat of allied air strikes deterring the Serbs from attacking protective forces of the United Nations in the "safe" areas.
U.S. and allied officials said yesterday that the U.N. forces would be given an expanded, more "muscular" mandate than their current rules, which call for them to fire in self-defense. But given the number of troops contemplated, their presence may be largely symbolic and inadequate to protect the enclaves against a determined Serbian or Croatian assault.
A key U.S. objection to the whole "safe haven" concept early on was that it would require a large number of ground troops.
However, Mr. Christopher said yesterday that it would have a "humanitarian value."
He added that "since the international community feels it is a valuable concept, the United States is willing to cooperate in that endeavor."
France, which has repeatedly pressed the United States to contribute troops to the U.N. forces, still had not given up that hope yesterday.
In response to a reporter's question after the five-power communique was issued, Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, said all the allies were moving forward "step by step." Asked if he thought Americans eventually would be deployed on the ground, he replied with a smile, "Maybe later."
Another complaint from the United States about the "safe areas" was that they would, as a senior official put it yesterday, "to some degree become refugee camps."
A key purpose of yesterday's communique was to show that the United States and its allies had ended a deep rift over Balkans strategy that seemed to threaten not only prospects for ending the Bosnian war but overall Atlantic cooperation.