WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, responding to the Bosnian Serbs' attack on civilians in Gorazde, made a pitch yesterday for more aggressive NATO military action despite hesitation from the Russians and some European allies.
Speaking to reporters as Serbian gunners shelled a hospital and other civilian targets, Mr. Clinton said: "We must make the Serbs pay a higher price for the continued violence."
The steps Mr. Clinton outlined involve diplomatic maneuvers, economic pressures and a broader plan for NATO involvement, all of which sounded as if they would take time and would not immediately relieve the suffering in Gorazde. But asked if it was "too late" for the Muslims in Gorazde, Mr. Clinton replied, "No.
"It's too late for a lot of people who have been killed there," he said. "But if the Serbs would . . . withdraw . . . it would not be too late for Gorazde in the sense that it could be restored as a genuine safe area and the town could be preserved."
Mr. Clinton outlined four measures he has proposed to NATO allies and to the Russians to tighten the screws against the Serbs.
* Extend to Gorazde and other designated "safe areas" in Bosnia the protection that was used successfully last month to break the siege of Sarajevo. This involved having NATO set up a zone around the city and insisting -- on penalty of airstrikes -- that artillery and tanks remain outside that zone.
U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called for this approach Monday.
* Improve enforcement of economic sanctions against Serbia, which the United Nations and NATO say has actively helped its brethren in Bosnia in their quest for more land and in "ethnic cleansing."
"The existing sanctions on Serbia have crippled Serbia's economy," the president said. "In light of recent events, there must be no relief."
A State Department spokesman, Michael McCurry, said the United States hoped for tighter enforcement of the blockade with cooperation from Serbia's neighbors.
* Agree to deploy an additional 4,000 U.N. peacekeepers on the ground. Earlier, Mr. Clinton had refused a U.N. recommendation for up to 4,000 more troops. The lack of enough troops available to be used as a buffer in Gorazde is partly to blame, administration officials believe, for the brazenness with which the Serbs attacked the city.
* Launch, in concert with the Europeans and the Russians, a "major diplomatic initiative" to seek an end to the 2-year-old war.
"Air power alone will not settle this conflict," the president said. "This conflict will have to be settled through negotiations."
Mr. Clinton said he talked by phone with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, French President Francois Mitterrand and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. He was unable, he said, to reach British Prime Minister John Major or German Chancellor Helmut jTC Kohl, although he said he had spoken with them in the past two days.
The difficulty in reaching foreign leaders -- and the difficulty in getting them to agree to specifics -- gave Mr. Clinton's announcement the feeling of being vague, rushed and incomplete.
The White House called the news conference for 3 p.m. Then changed the time to 2:45. At 2:46, the news conference time was changed to 4:15 p.m. It began at 4:50 p.m.
NATO went part way yesterday toward carrying out the president's strategy, tentatively approving a request by Mr. Boutros-Ghali to give U.N. commanders power to seek air strikes near all the "safe areas." But it delayed final approval to give military planners time to figure out how to pursue the task.
"We hope we'll be able to come to a credible decision within a few days," said Sir John Weston, the British ambassador to the alliance.
But Mr. Clinton still faces a tough selling job abroad on his broader strategy of creating demilitarized zones around the "safe areas," backed up by the threat of air strikes against a variety of targets.
In Moscow, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev said: "I cannot agree with the logic of mounting tension, the logic of threats from NATO. It would be a mistake to apply any decision on air strikes at least without working out a coordinating policy."
Most European capitals were officially silent on the Clinton plan. Nations with many peacekeepers on the ground, particularly Canada and Britain, are worried about Serbian retaliation against their troops if wider bombing raids are conducted.
The French, who also have a significant presence on the ground, were said by U.S. officials to be supportive.
Canada especially worries that U.N. troops could get trapped "in a very deadly scenario," said a U.S. official. He added that the allies also want to consider what NATO could do next if the strategy failed.
This is the problem that cropped up last week, when allied planes patrolling the "no-fly" zone over Bosnia were sent to attack Serbian tanks endangering U.N. positions inside Gorazde. A Serbian command post and several vehicles were hit, but the tanks escaped. One British plane was downed by anti-aircraft fire.
The limited foray not only didn't stop the Serbs; it seemed to embolden them.
Under the new proposal, instead of haphazard reprisals against individual targets, air strikes would be launched against any Serbian troops, weapons or emplacements remaining in the exclusion zones set up around the six towns.
Mr. Clinton ducked a question on the possibility of escalating the attacks later to include strategic targets, such as oil supplies, ammunition depots, or bridges on the Serbian supply lines, saying: "I don't think it's appropriate for me to discuss the tactical details of our policy . . . certainly not until they have been worked out with our allies."
The military escalation could bring into play NATO's "smart" weapons, missiles and bombs that are guided to targets by radar or infrared.
But however precise the targeting, there would likely be unintended casualties, Pentagon officials said, particularly if the targets were in urban areas, as are the Serbian tanks firing inside Gorazde.
"You are not going to take action on air strikes against those things without some sort of collateral damage if they are close in," said an Air Force officer attached to the Pentagon. "The question is, will you save more lives in the long run, or will you not?"
Allied planes could also attack the Serbian rear lines, cutting off fuel and ammunition supplies to the forward-moving tanks.