WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration yesterday backed away from a 2-year-old plan under which the United States would have sent up to 25,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina to help enforce any peace settlement reached there.
At the same time, however, a senior administration official renewed the threat of North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes against Bosnian Serb positions if rebel leaders continue to reject the administration's diplomatic initiative to settle the Balkans conflict.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke acknowledged that a smaller number of U.S. troops might be sent to Bosnia as part of a NATO force if the combatants accept a peace settlement.
Mr. Holbrooke said a 1993 plan, under which an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 Americans would have been sent as part of a NATO force to police any settlement, has been quietly discarded. Under that plan, roughly 50,000 NATO troops, including U.S. infantry soldiers and Marines, would have swept into the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, and other key cities.
"There was a general operations plan . . . which did involve numbers of that sort and higher," he said. "That plan is not currently under discussion. A basic new planning exercise is under way within NATO . . . and those earlier numbers should not be regarded in any way as binding or definitive."
Mr. Holbrooke, in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," did not say exactly how many U.S. troops the administration would now send to enforce any peace settlement, but he stressed that, as with the earlier plan, the U.S. forces would be under NATO command.
The number of Americans "is the subject of an ongoing and intense dialogue being conducted by the United States military and our NATO allies at this very moment," he said.
Mr. Holbrooke heads up the reconstituted U.S. team trying to negotiate an end to the war in Bosnia. Eight days after the accidental deaths of three U.S. negotiators in Bosnia devastated the team and delayed the peace effort, Mr. Holbrooke said yesterday that he will visit the Serbian capital of Belgrade this week for what he called "potentially decisive" talks with President Slobodan Milosevic, who long sponsored the Bosnian Serb effort.
So far, the Bosnian Serbs have shown no inclination to accept the U.S. peace plan. And Mr. Milosevic has maintained that he cannot force the rebels to agree to a settlement.
Under the proposal, parts of which are still being kept secret, 51 percent of Bosnian territory would be put under the control of a federation of Bosnian Croats and Muslims, and 49 percent would be put under the control of Bosnian Serbs.
The main obstacle to such a settlement are the Bosnian Serbs, who control about 70 percent of Bosnian territory and have refused to accept an accord in which they have to give up significant amounts of land.
Mr. Holbrooke suggested that if the Bosnian Serbs remain recalcitrant, they will soon face NATO airstrikes. "If this peace initiative does not get moving, dramatically moving, in the next week or two, the consequences will be very adverse to the Serbian goals," Mr. Holbrooke said. "One way or another, NATO will be heavily involved, and the Serbs don't want that. NATO will either assist the U.N. withdrawal or there will be more active NATO air over the skies. . . .
"I don't want to leave the impression that NATO airstrikes start automatically if we don't make a breakthrough in the next few days," he said. "I'm not going to give a tight time limit." Before meeting with Mr. Milosevic, Mr. Holbrooke will stop in Paris to talk with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and to attend a meeting of the Contact Group of five nations -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Russia -- overseeing Bosnian peace efforts.