WASHINGTON -- The United States and Europe moved closer yesterday to using force against Serbs besieging Bosnia's capital, with President Clinton's top aides recommending air strikes if Serbian troops don't withdraw from within striking distance of Sarajevo.
The emerging plans marked a potential turning point, driven by the televised horror of Saturday's shelling of a Sarajevo market that left 68 people dead and more than 200 wounded and by the political outcry that followed. But they still left doubts about the allied determination after a year of hand-wringing and empty threats.
Meeting twice yesterday, Mr. Clinton's national security advisers generally endorsed a French plan that calls for an ultimatum to the Serbs, who have bombarded Sarajevo repeatedly with shells. The plan is likely to be put before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization today and tomorrow.
The French plan calls for Serbian troops to withdraw to a distance that makes further shelling of the city impossible and for heavy weapons within 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) of the city to be turned over to United Nations peacekeepers.
If these demands aren't met, "all means, including air power" would then be used against the Serbs.
Mr. Clinton also backed an idea, advanced by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, of using bombs to punish the Serbs for artillery strikes against the Bosnian capital. In addition, the United States is expected to dispatch a higher-level diplomatic team to press for an overall peace settlement.
In Brussels, Belgium, the European Union (formerly called the European Community) urged NATO to use "all means necessary," including air power, to lift "immediately" the siege of Sarajevo.
But divisions were still evident within the North Atlantic alliance. And while Mr. Clinton's advisers were described as more unified than in the past, Pentagon misgivings were clear. Statements by U.S. and European officials left plenty of room to back away from immediate bombing.
"I hope very much that the horror of all these innocent people dying will sober all those who are responsible and lead to a renewed effort to get a peace agreement there," Mr. Clinton said in Houston, where he gave a speech devoted largely to the economy.
dTC Mr. Clinton also warned that "until those folks get tired of killing each other over there, bad things will continue to happen."
Mr. Boutros-Ghali gave the prospect of air strikes a push Sunday when, in a letter to NATO, he sought the alliance's authorization for air power to be used in retaliation for shelling attacks on civilians.
In doing so, he removed a key obstacle in the cumbersome allied decision-making process to launch air strikes.
Backing his move, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said the secretary-general's request was "future in its character" and didn't apply to Saturday's attack. But he pointed toward retaliation for past Serbian attacks anyway, saying: "I think it's important that although we will certainly respond to what the secretary-general has asked, we're not limited by it."
While lacking proof of responsibility for Saturday's attack, he said, "The strong presumption in my mind is that it was by the Serbs." He noted that the United Nations blamed Serbs for an attack Friday "which killed, I believe, eight individuals in a food line."
At a budget briefing, Defense Secretary William J. Perry left no doubt about the Pentagon's continued lack of enthusiasm for military action in Bosnia.
"The whole building takes very seriously the limitations of air strikes against, first of all, artillery-type targets and, secondly, any targets that are embedded in a civilian population, particularly if the person who has the equipment is deliberately embedding it next to civilian targets," Mr. Perry said.
He ruled out action by the United States alone, warning of the need to protect U.N. peacekeeping forces on the ground, many supplied by Britain and France.
Domestic pressure for air strikes mounted, meanwhile, with the usually dovish Indiana Democrat Lee H. Hamilton, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urging their use for "fairly limited purposes," including lifting the siege, ending the shelling, and protecting humanitarian aid.
The EU's plan opens the way for much broader use of military force than the limited idea endorsed by President Clinton.
Action to lift the siege of Sarajevo could include bombing of Serbian artillery sites on the hills above Sarajevo, whether provoked by a shelling attack, as well as action on the ground by U.N. peacekeepers.
"This does bring nearer a decision in one way or another to use force," said British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.
But the vagueness of the mandate meant that commanders could declare the siege lifted without forcibly removing the artillery batteries.
And the Europeans didn't insist that past acts of shelling be punished. Mr. Hurd said the foreign ministers agreed action "should be forward-looking . . . aimed at achieving an improvement in the situation."
Among other steps, the EU backed a negotiating strategy now being pushed by mediator Lord Owen for Sarajevo to be placed under U.N. protection while talks continue among warring Serbs, Muslims and Croats toward a final settlement.
Declaring the carnage in Bosnia "a test of our honor," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe proposed giving Bosnian Serbs an ultimatum to withdraw or face allied air strikes. But only the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy favored this outright.
Belgian Foreign Minister Willy Claes expressed disappointment afterward, saying: "I had hoped for a more forceful attitude. . . . This won't do our image any good," the Associated Press reported.
Widespread skepticism that NATO finally will act is grounded in the events of the last year. For months, NATO has had broad authority under U.N. resolutions to launch air attacks to protect U.N. peacekeepers and prevent the strangulation of Sarajevo and other declared safe areas, but has avoided using it despite repeated provocations.
As of the NATO summit in January, commanders also have been authorized to use force to open the airport at Tuzla and protect U.N. troop rotations at Srebrenica.
NATO also has done little to stop rampant violation of the U.N.-declared no-fly zone over Bosnia.
If air strikes do result from Saturday's shelling, television will have played a major role. A Clinton senior adviser, George Stephanopoulos, acknowledged yesterday it had accelerated diplomatic activity.
The Saturday attack pales in significance against the totality of atrocities in the conflict, which has left tens of thousands dead from war crimes and has failed to trigger a military response from the United States and its allies.
Documented human rights abuses include massacres, the deaths of thousands in concentration camps and prisons, widespread torture, terrorizing of civilian populations to force them to flee, mutilations, forced labor and rape.
While atrocities have been committed by all sides, Bosnian Serbs, who launched the conflict with Belgrade's complicity, have been held chiefly responsible.