WASHINGTON -- Facing the prospect of renewed, wider fighting in the former Yugoslavia this spring, the Clinton administration is considering placing more American troops -- possibly thousands -- in Macedonia to prevent the war from spreading through the whole Balkan region, officials said yesterday.
The possibility that a substantial contingent of U.S. troops may dTC be deployed to Macedonia was disclosed by Anthony Lake, President Clinton's national security adviser, who emphasized that dispatching troops was only one course of action under review.
Asked at a meeting with reporters whether the administration planned to send more U.S. troops to Macedonia, Mr. Lake replied: "I think 'plans' is wrong. It is an option."
Another senior administration official, who declined to be identified, said the possible troop increase could range from a low of 500 to 1,000 additional soldiers to a high of 10,000.
Other countries would be urged to contribute troops as well, the official said.
U.S. soldiers have been part of a United Nations force in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia since 1993, along that country's border with Serbia. There have been 300 to 600 U.S. troops in the 1,100-strong force, which has played a substantial, if unheralded, role in preventing the conflict that involves Serbs, Muslims and Croats in Bosnia from spreading.
But successful efforts to contain the Bosnian war may prove inadequate in the weeks ahead, officials say. There is growing fear that Croatia will insist upon the withdrawal of U.N. forces from its territory, potentially reigniting a war between Croats and Serbs, as well as between Serbs and Bosnian Muslims.
U.S. officials worry that an escalation of the fighting might lead to Serbia moving against Macedonia. Because of Macedonia's large Albanian minority, and because of tensions between Macedonia and Greece, such a move by Serbia could bring those countries into the Bosnian war.
"Macedonia becomes extremely important because of its own ethnic mix and because of the Greek interest in Macedonia," Mr. Lake said.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman has insisted that U.N. peacekeepers begin to leave his country on March 31. Unless he can be persuaded to change his mind, officials say, it is likely that NATO forces -- including U.S. naval and air units, and possibly ground troops -- would be sent in to help the U.N. troops withdraw.
Americans account for roughly half of the United Nations force in Macedonia, and are the only U.S. ground troops among the U.N. peacekeeping forces in the Balkans. They are stationed in the capital city, Skopje, as well as along the Serbian border.
Other nations that have sent troops are Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. The U.N. commander is a Norwegian.
The U.N. force has played a mostly symbolic role. But the symbol is a powerful one: It signals that, despite the reluctance of the United States to get embroiled in the fighting in Bosnia, the Clinton administration is prepared to follow through on its threats to prevent Serbian aggression against Macedonia or against Albanian Muslims in the Serbian province of Kosovo.
The threat, first made by President George Bush and reiterated by Mr. Clinton, grew out of the fear that conflict in either Kosovo or Macedonia would ignite a wider war that could bring in Turkey, Greece, Albania and Bulgaria.