UNITED NATIONS, New York -- The Clinton administration, aroused by the prospect of a "humanitarian disaster" in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, is considering a number of reactions, including the dispatch of U.S. troops in an enlarged ground force to save the city, according to senior U.S. officials.
While one senior official said the prospect of U.S. ground forces being sent was "hypothetical," the mere consideration of such an option marks a major turn in U.S. policy toward the Balkans.
A second official described it as "certainly one option at the far end of the scale" of steps under consideration to ease the plight of Sarajevo. Other options include much-expanded airdrops.
"There are a whole range of ways to help [the humanitarian plight] short of massive military action," the second official said. In a telephone interview from Washington this official noted the Pentagon's strong opposition to sending ground forces into Bosnia.
The United States this week completed the landing of 300 ground troops to bolster U.N. peacekeeping forces in Macedonia, the so-far peaceful former Yugoslav republic that borders Serbia.
Those forces are not in danger of imminent confrontation, and President Clinton has consistently refused to commit U.S. troops into the conflict among Serbs, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia, except to help implement a peace agreement freely arrived at by the warring parties.
But with the situation in Sarajevo deteriorating to the point at which survival of the city itself is in doubt, the administration is being forced to weigh the possibility that only the presence of U.S. forces could save it.
At the moment, Sarajevo is essentially without water, gas and electricity and Serbian gunners have been picking off people who try to reach what meager supplies do exist.
In one neighborhood, 12 people were killed by a shell Monday as they waited in line to fill plastic jugs from a communal water tap.
A tentative agreement was reached among the warring parties yesterday to try to restore some services, but such agreements have often gone unfulfilled in the past.
At a meeting of the president's top foreign policy advisers in Washington yesterday, officials weighed reports from the scene that the only way emergency relief could be assured is with a substantially increased military presence, said one senior U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity.
The president's advisers took up reports from diplomats and other sources that "you would have to put the military in there in order to save it," an official said. "Given the deteriorating [situation] you might have to put troops in there to guarantee emergency supplies," the official said.
The looming "humanitarian disaster" this official referred to included the consequences of a cutoff of utilities and continued interference with relief efforts by warring parties on the ground.
Yesterday's meeting of the administration's foreign policy "principals" in Washington was called to bring Mr. Clinton's top advisers up to date on a series of events in the Balkans, including the status of peace negotiations and monitors in the Serbian province of Kosovo, that have transpired since the president left for the Group of Seven economic summit in Tokyo last week.
Yesterday's meeting coincided with a warning to the U.N. Security Council from the U.N.'s top official in the Balkans that the U.N. could be forced to withdraw altogether from Bosnia because of a host of financial and logistical problems and continued interference by warring forces.
Thorvald Stoltenberg, the U.N. mediator who briefed the council yesterday, said in a written report prepared last week: "While it is obviously of paramount importance to sustain the humanitarian effort for as long as possible, there is a real risk that, if the present downward spiral continues, it will be impossible for the United Nations to remain in Bosnia and Herzegovina."
The Security Council has established and vowed to protect six "safe areas," including Sarajevo, but has had trouble coming up with the troops considered necessary to do the job.
'Moreover, it has collected less than half the money relief officials say is required to sustain humanitarian relief to Bosnia this year.
France, which already has a large troop commitment in the U.N. protection force in Bosnia, is sending an additional 1,000 soldiers to Sarajevo.
In his report to the council, Mr. Stoltenberg said, "the stark realities are that there is little prospect for implementing the safe-areas policy before new resources arrive and that the civilian population will face devastating hardship next winter unless [U.N. forces] focuses on efforts to restore utilities and humanitarian relief deliveries."
He said the casualty rate among U.N. forces, who have become targets of deliberate attacks, "has significantly increased recently."
In addition, he said, the United Nations' "resources and equipment are badly strained."
Russia, Britain and France have consistently opposed any aggressive military action by the West against Bosnia's Serbs, who are considered the major aggressors in the conflict.