WASHINGTON -- After nearly four years of ethnic bloodletting, the combatants in Bosnia's civil war agreed yesterday to an American-brokered, 60-day cease-fire, President Clinton announced.
"We need to be clear-eyed about this," said Mr. Clinton, acknowledging that cease-fires -- and false hopes -- have come and gone in Bosnia without producing peace.
This time, however, he and others involved in the tortuous negotiations sounded optimistic that all sides finally realize they have more to gain by setting aside their weapons.
The president said that the cease-fire is to be followed by peace talks at a secluded location here in the United States, where American diplomats will mediate among representatives of Croatia, the Bosnian government and Bosnian Serbs.
If successful, they would move to Paris to sign a peace accord that would end the worst conflict in Europe since World War II.
"There remain deep divisions to overcome," Mr. Clinton said. "We are on the right road, but we have by no means reached our destination, which is a serious and lasting peace in Bosnia."
If such an agreement is reached, Mr. Clinton might face both plaudits and pitfalls.
He likely will be lauded by the world community for pressing a diplomatic solution. But he would also face hard questions at home because a settlement will require North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops to enforce it -- and many of those troops will be Americans, perhaps 25,000 or more.
Under an agreement hammered out by Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke, head of the U.S. negotiating team, the cease-fire will begin Tuesday, provided two conditions are met:
* The restoration of electricity and gas to Sarajevo, the once-cosmopolitan Bosnian capital that has been under siege by the Bosnians Serbs for three years;
L * The opening by the Bosnian Serbs of the roads to Sarajevo.
Yesterday's announcement came as U.N. officials confirmed reports that Croatian army units had gone back into Bosnia.
Under the terms of the cease-fire, all sniping, mine laying and artillery firing is to stop. In addition, military commanders are prohibited from launching offensive operations or movements, though they are not required to retreat.
Mr. Holbrooke achieved this agreement by shuttling between Sarajevo, where he negotiated with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, and Belgrade, where he met with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
Mr. Milosevic was the architect of a sweeping pan-Serbian alliance that would have produced a "Greater Serbia."
Those dreams in Bosnia were --ed by a combination of NATO firepower, crippling Western economic sanctions and Croatian military might.
An unexpected Croatian offensive this summer routed separatist Croatian Serbs, beginning a series of Serbian reverses that created an opening for American negotiators.
Mr. Holbrooke, the head of that negotiating team, nailed down yesterday the signature of President Izetbegovic. A day earlier, he persuaded President Milosevic to sign. Mr. Milosevic, in turn, pressured Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic to sign as well.
Whether those Bosnian Serb leaders, whom the West blames for most of the bloodshed in Bosnia, will keep their word is another matter. They have made promises before and broken them.
And yet, many observers, and not just those in the Clinton administration, believed that this time could be different.
"What differentiates between this and previous cease-fires is the Americans," said Susan Woodward, a Balkans expert at the Brookings Institution.
Mr. Holbrooke, at least so far, seems to have come up with a plan that gives everyone something. Punished with crippling trade sanctions for arming the Bosnian Serbs, Mr. Milosevic would be given the opportunity to rebuild his nation's economy.
For the Bosnian Serbs, negotiating now gives them the opportunity to control about 51 percent of the land in Bosnia -- or perhaps slightly more -- at a time when they are at risk of losing some of their battlefield gains to either the Croats or the newly energized Bosnian government regulars.
For the Croats, who initially fought the Bosnian government but then joined with it in an anti-Serbian federation, the incentives are being the new power broker in the Balkans as well as sharing power with the Muslims and Serbs in neighboring Bosnia.
For the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo, the incentive is an end to the killing of its civilians and its fighters, a lift of the horrifying siege of the capital, a lifeline to the outside world with the opening of roads, and something it has craved for three years -- an implied promise from NATO to defend its sovereignty.
In Williamsburg, Va., NATO defense ministers spoke of this role as they met in an attempt to iron out kinks in the alliances' peacekeeping efforts.
"We will not allow a situation to arise where we cannot have a peace agreement because we do not have a peace implementation force ready," Walter Slocombe, a top Pentagon official, told reporters immediately after Mr. Clinton's announcement.
"We are in a race against time," added French Defense Minister Charles Millon, who predicted that after the peace talks are concluded the United States might send as many as 35,000 American soldiers to the Balkans as part of a huge multinational peacekeeping force.
That force would have the backing of a U.N. Security Council resolution but be under NATO command -- a crucial pre-condition for American participation.