WASHINGTON -- As Britain and France announced plans to send thousands more troops to the Balkans, President Clinton scaled back his offer of U.S. ground forces to help United Nations peacekeepers yesterday and said American soldiers would be sent there only in a "highly unlikely" emergency.
But while cutting back the prospective American role on the ground, U.S. officials expanded it in the air, as U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry pledged to offer aircraft flown by American pilots in support of Britain's and France's new quick-reaction force.
Mr. Perry made his offer a day after a U.S. F-16 aircraft was shot down by a ground-to-air missile over Serbian-controlled territory in Bosnia. The Pentagon has not released the name of the pilot or any details about the search for him.
Serbian-controlled television broadcast images of the wrecked plane, and a spokesman for Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said that "we have no information about the pilot."
Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there had been one short transmission from what could have been the pilot's emergency beacon. "We still do not know for sure the whereabouts of the pilot or his condition," he said.
Mr. Clinton and Mr. Perry spelled out new, narrower conditions for sending U.S. ground troops to Bosnia after nearly a week of confusion and anxiety in the Congress over the U.S. role in the war.
Defending his Bosnia policy during a radio address yesterday, Mr. Clinton renewed his long-standing offer to send in American troops to enforce a peace agreement or to help an eventual withdrawal of the U.N. peacekeeping force.
On the more immediate possibility of sending U.S. forces, he said this would come only in "the remote, indeed highly unlikely event" that peacekeepers "become stranded and could not get out of a particular place in Bosnia."
"I have decided that, if a U.N. unit needs an emergency extraction, we would assist after consulting with Congress. This would be a limited, temporary operation. And we have not been asked to do this. I think it is highly unlikely that we would be asked to do it."
Four days earlier, in a commencement address at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Mr. Clinton had made a more expansive offer, suggesting American ground troops could be used in strengthening or rearranging the peacekeeping force.
What caused the White House policy to be changed, a senior U.S. official said, was the commitment Britain and France announced yesterday not only to keep their thousands of peacekeepers under U.N. command in Bosnia but to maintain the U.N. presence in Muslim enclaves that the Security Council has dubbed "safe areas."
This meant that fewer U.N. troops would have to be relocated to new positions -- and thus that less outside protection would be needed.
The official said U.S. troops could still be called in for an "emergency relocation" of peacekeepers from one part of Bosnia to another, not just to help in a withdrawal.
Mr. Perry, who attended a meeting of defense ministers in Paris, said some of the 2,000 Marines now aboard U.S. Navy vessels in the Adriatic Sea could be dispatched on a search-and-rescue mission if a NATO aircraft is shot down.
"It's conceivable that they might go in under that kind of an operation," Mr. Perry said. Officials here said they had no indication that any Marines had been sent to search for the pilot whose aircraft was shot down on Friday, however.
With his offer to send U.S. ground troops into Bosnia earlier this week, Mr. Clinton drew harsh criticism from a number of Republicans and misgivings from Democrats on Capitol Hill. But he also accomplished a diplomatic purpose, officials said.
At that point, Europeans were still wavering on whether to keep a large peacekeeping force in Bosnia or withdraw it in the face of Serbian attacks, including the seizure of more than 370 peacekeepers as hostages. The Clinton offer helped stiffen their resolve to keep the peacekeepers there.
pTC The European quick-reaction forces were announced in Paris after the three-hour meeting of defense ministers from 15 countries, including the United States. The two new brigades could be operating by the end of the month, officials said, and will include a 5,000-person British contingent and a new, international force with troops from Britain, France and the Netherlands.
No American ground troops will participate, although the United States will provide substantial amounts of equipment, air support, a sophisticated navigational system and an intelligence center.
Defense Minister Charles Millon of France said a group would go to New York early this week to inform U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali of the decisions here. A vote by the Security Council would be required to carry out the changes, he said.
Meanwhile the 121 U.N. troops who had been held hostage by the Bosnian Serbs and released Friday were being flown to Zagreb, Croatia, the regional U.N. headquarters. The released hostages are from Britain, France, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Napal and Canada.
Although several hostages made brief comments after their release, their commanders asked that they remain silent. "There's a general agreement among the commanders that no one should make statements because other people are still being held hostage," a British officer said. "We don't want to do or say anything that will jeopardize their safety."
Clinton aides voiced hope yesterday that the latest Bosnian tensions would subside and revert to the already grim status quo: peacekeepers on the ground and tentative moves toward ending the 3-year-old war between Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government.
U.S. officials were encouraged by statements from Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic that all U.N. peacekeepers being held as hostages might soon be released. But efforts to enlist Mr. Milosevic in brokering an overall peace remained stalled.
A U.S. negotiator, Robert Frasure, had been trying to get the Serbian president to recognize Bosnia in exchange for a suspension of U.N.-imposed economic sanctions and other inducements. But Mr. Milosevic is holding out for an effective lifting of sanctions, U.S. officials said.