ZAGREB, Croatia -- In a warning to the factions in Bosnia that the time for a settlement is running out, France announced yesterday that it had asked the United Nations and NATO to draw up detailed plans for the withdrawal of peacekeepers from the war-ravaged country.
"I say today that the obstinacy of some and the demagogy of others risks setting the Balkans ablaze tomorrow," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in the French National Assembly. "I am still ready to do everything I can to prevent such a development, but my duty, alas, is to say that it is no longer improbable."
France, with 4,500 troops, is the largest contributor to the 23,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force stationed in Bosnia and Croatia.
In a clear allusion to the United States, he criticized "governments that want to give us lessons when they have not lifted a little finger to put even one man on the ground."
His statement reflected widespread exasperation over the Serbian humiliation of U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia, the failure of international mediation efforts there and the newly exposed emptiness of NATO threats and U.N. resolutions as the Serbs pound the Muslim enclave of Bihac.
More than 300 U.N. peacekeepers are being detained by the Bosnian Serbs as insurance against any further North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes. One of them, a Jordanian with what U.N. officials described as a serious heart condition, was released yesterday, but two other peacekeepers, a Russian and a Spaniard, were detained in his place. The Bosnian Serbs had agreed to the switch Tuesday but allowed it to occur only yesterday.
NATO and the United Nations have been involved in detailed planning for a withdrawal of the peacekeepers in Bosnia for months. The chief of staff of U.N. forces here, Brig. Gen. Roy Ratazzi, has worked on little else since August.
The alliance formally asked member nations yesterday how many troops they would contribute to such an evacuation. But a complete withdrawal would require a decision by the U.N. Security Council, which does not appear imminent.
Mr. Juppe's statement, like that of U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali last week, appeared to be primarily intended to convey a strong message to the warring parties in Bosnia that the time for a settlement is running out.
The Muslim-led Bosnian government would be deeply worried by a withdrawal because it would remove an important buffer against the Bosnian Serbs. It would almost certainly lead to the collapse into Serbian hands of the remaining Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia -- Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde -- and of Bihac in the northwest.
The Bosnian Serbs would be less worried about a pullout, though they know that it would leave them more exposed to possible Western military action.
"If they pack up and take their weapons with them and don't leave them in the hands of the Muslims, the U.N. peacekeepers will be allowed to leave Bosnia," said Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' leader.
In its acid view of American diplomacy in Bosnia and bellicose statements by congressional Republicans, Mr. Juppe's speech also seemed aimed at shifting some blame across the Atlantic for what would amount to a serious embarrassment to the British and French governments.
Because the Bosnian war is not an intercontinental threat, it has repeatedly put the United States and Europe at odds, both within and outside the NATO alliance.
"We have asked the United Nations and NATO to plan in detail the withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers," Mr. Juppe said in his speech. "This is a high-risk operation that will require reinforcing troops on the ground first."
Current planning calls for the reinforcements to include roughly two NATO divisions, or more than 20,000 soldiers, that would be used to protect and transport the peacekeepers in a volatile environment. The Clinton administration has indicated a willingness to take part in protecting a withdrawal, and the alliance's current planning calls for inclusion of as many as 10,000 American troops.
British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said that Britain hoped that its troops could stay in Bosnia but said planning for a withdrawal was constantly being updated.