WASHINGTON -- President Clinton approved a new strategy of expanded air strikes to protect Bosnia's Muslim enclaves yesterday as Serbian forces seized back their anti-aircraft weapons from the United Nations in Sarajevo and kept pummeling the besieged town of Gorazde.
The plan would create a new buffer around Gorazde and other United Nations-declared "safe zones" and protect them with air strikes aimed at a variety of Serbian targets.
The new strategy is an effort to rescue U.S. prestige after the Western failure to check Serbian aggression over the past week and a half. But the Clinton plan faces an uncertain future because the Western European allies continue to fear Serbian retaliation against U.N. peacekeepers on the ground in Bosnia.
Mr. Clinton tried to smooth the way for his initiative by speaking approvingly for the first time of a Russian-French call for an international summit on Bosnia, an idea the United States previously had dismissed.
The outlines of the administration's new plan were provided to reporters by White House aides after two lengthy meetings between Mr. Clinton and his top foreign policy and military advisers.
With Gorazde's 65,000 residents and refugees under direct threat, the Serbs increased their defiance of both the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization early yesterday by seizing some anti-aircraft guns they had placed under U.N. guard near Sarajevo, the capital.
But as NATO weighed how to retaliate, the Serbs returned 13 of the 18 seized guns and also freed about three-quarters of the 58 U.N. military observers they had detained after NATO launched air strikes against them last week, according to a U.N. spokesman.
Bosnian Serbs signed an agreement with the United Nations late yesterday to cease fire immediately around Gorazde and to allow the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in the area.
However, the agreement came only after the Serbs had mounted relentless attacks on the city, shelling the hospital, putting four shells into the local office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and setting fire to other buildings.
One U.N. aid worker was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the town, sprawled along the steep Drina River valley, "is a terrible place for human beings right now."
A shell that exploded between the Red Cross building and a refugee center injured 10 to 15 people on the street.
The reports did not say if there were any deaths.
The new U.S. proposal would substantially raise the stakes in the Bosnian war for Mr. Clinton and NATO and mean another big step back from Mr. Clinton's pledge not to take sides.
The Clinton strategy has four parts:
* To create demilitarized zones around all six "safe areas" in Bosnia. Unless Serbs comply voluntarily in Gorazde, where they are close to overrunning the town, this would require NATO military action to reverse actual territorial gains.
* To respond to violations with expanded bombing. This could begin with pinpointed attacks on the sources of Serbian shelling. But officials said that it could graduate to "strategic" bombing of targets that help supply the Serbian war machine.
* To force the Serbs to the negotiating table. A senior White House official said that unless Serbian threats to the "safe areas" are removed, no negotiated settlement could result.
* To seek tighter sanctions against Serbia as a way of bringing added pressure on the Bosnian Serbs.
U.N. chief opens the way
U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali opened the way Monday for the expanded use of air power in a letter to NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner seeking NATO authority for broadened air strikes -- not just close air support for endangered U.N. troops -- to help protect the six "safe areas."
The United Nations and NATO probably will issue a new ultimatum for the Serbs to withdraw their heavy weapons from the designated exclusion zones by a certain time or face punishment.
A similar threat last month lifted the siege of Sarajevo until the Serbs started to reassert their control of the area this week.
The severity of that punishment would depend on Serbian behavior. Prompt compliance would head off new air strikes.
But if defiance continues, the strikes would be applied with increasing intensity.
U.S. Air Force officers said that "definable military objectives" in Bosnia were crucial to the air strikes' impact.
But according to some defense analysts, air power will not save the "safe areas" from Serbian takeover.
Limitation of air power
"Air power can do many things, but it cannot secure land," said Loren B. Thompson, deputy director of Georgetown University's National Security Studies Program.
"Unfortunately, in this particular case, all the action is on the ground.
"What we have learned here is that the outcome of this war matters far more to the Serbs than it does to any of the foreign nations. As a consequence, it is already becoming clear what the outcome will be: The Muslims will be forced into a very small area and most of the 'safe areas' will fall."
By expanding the tactical strikes to all six "safe areas," the range of targets would be extended and the credibility of the United States and its allies would be exposed to new and wider challenges.
"We have lost an awful lot of the credibility we built up as a result of the gulf war," said Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration who now works at the Brookings Institution.
"It's kind of a sad thing for the U.S. to be taking these halfway measures."
To bolster that credibility, the United States may consider using precision-guided weapons, which have not yet been used in Bosnia.
"There is no doubt that precision-guided munitions are a definite force multiplier," said one officer.
"They allow you to home in on targets and take them out with the least collateral [civilian] damage. If you want to make a strong statement, take out a command-and-control center, take out a fuel depot; they will do it."
The best system available to allied forces in NATO's southern command is the Lantirn, an infrared sensor that enables a pilot to lock his weapons onto a target, day or night, in all weather.
But only eight F-15E Strike Eagles attached to the command are armed with it. They are based in Aviano, Italy. Another flight of 72 F-15Es is based in Britain and could be quickly assigned to the Bosnian operation.
Allied planes that share the enforcement of the "no-fly" zone over Bosnia with U.S. aircraft have less sophisticated "smart" weapons.