LONDON -- Trying to set a new military course in the Balkans, the United States and most of its allies yesterday proclaimed their readiness to deliver a "substantial and decisive response" if the Bosnian Serbs expanded their attacks on United Nations "safe areas."
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, speaking at the end of the conference of 16 allied nations, pledged the Clinton administration's willingness to use air power if the Bosnian Serbs attacked the Muslim enclave of Gorazde.
"Gorazde will be defended," Mr. Christopher said. "The Bosnian Serb leaders are now on notice that attacks against Gorazde will be met by substantial and decisive air power.
"Any air campaign in Gorazde will consist of significant attacks on significant targets," he said. "There will be no more pin-prick strikes."
Within the last two weeks, Bosnian Serb forces have overrun one U.N. "safe area" and surrounded a second, forcing tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims to join a river of refugees. Many of those who managed to escape have spoken of the Bosnian Serbs killing young men, raping women and repeating the worst of the violence from previous examples of "ethnic cleansing."
But the daylong meeting in London demonstrated just how difficult it is for the United States and its allies to forge a common policy on ways to end the fighting in Bosnia. The official statement from British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, chairman of the meeting, was noticeably more muted than the comments of Mr. Christopher, with Mr. Rifkind declining to promise that airstrikes would actually occur.
"There was strong support for [our pledge] to include the use of air power, but there was also great concern expressed," Mr. Rifkind said.
"Countries are conscious of the serious risks involved in this course of action. We emphasized that the United Nations must not go to war, but needs to support realistic and effective deterrence," he said.
The Russians, traditional allies of the Serbs, cast further doubt on the promise of a "decisive response" to the Bosnian Serbs.
"There is no consensus for airstrikes," Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev said.
Mr. Christopher said the conference agreed unanimously that the 25,000-member U.N. Protection Force in Bosnia must remain. But that, too, was questioned by Mr. Kozyrev.
The meeting in London was hastily organized as part of the allied response to the latest Bosnian Serb attacks. If the town of Gorazde were to fall to the Bosnian Serbs, they would control all the territory between Sarajevo and Serbia.
"We face a stark choice," Mr. Christopher said. "Either the international community rapidly takes firm steps to build its mission in Bosnia, or the mission collapses."
The allies agreed that the U.N. Protection Force would remain in Bosnia, that the Anglo-French-Dutch rapid-reaction force would seek to open a supply route to Sarajevo, that humanitarian needs must be addressed before winter and that the conflict can only be solved by a political settlement.
"So long as the Bosnian Serb aggression continues, any political process is doomed to failure," Mr. Christopher said. "Our first step must be to take action and return an element of stability on the ground. At that point, we agree that a country-wide cease-fire be prepared."
But for now, the allies are focusing their attention on Gorazde and its 64,000 inhabitants who are protected by several hundred peacekeepers, mainly from Great Britain.
U.S. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry said the air campaign would be a "phased plan ranging anywhere from close air support . . . to a broader regional air campaign." Previously, he said that the first set of targets in the air campaign would be the Serbian air defense systems.
Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the proposal was a significant departure from previous air campaigns in Bosnia. U.S. officials also announced that special U.N. representative for Bosnia Yasushi Akashi had lost his effective veto over NATO airstrikes. The most senior U.N. official to be involved in any airstrike decision would be the military commander in Bosnia, British Lt. Gen. Rupert Smith.
"We've issued a very strong warning that if you do attack, you're going to pay an extremely heavy price," Mr. Christopher said. "We'll leave that to their imagination."
The Americans, who do not have forces on the ground in Bosnia, are trying to avert a U.N. pullout, for which they have promised to supply 25,000 troops.
The United States is also pressing for the air campaign to proceed even if the Serbs continue a policy of taking peacekeepers as hostages.
Said Mr. Perry: "We cannot let policy be hostage to taking hostages."