WASHINGTON — Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim and Croat leaders signed a peace agreement designed to end the conflict in the former Yugoslav republic on Thursday, but Serb leader Radovan Karadzic refused to initial the pact.
U.N. mediator Cyrus R. Vance called the signing "a major step" in the peace process. But his fellow negotiator, Lord Owen, warned that continuing Serb resistance could prompt the international community to "take some action--and it will be tough action."
In Washington, President Clinton, stepping up the pressure, said he is considering ways to open the flow of arms to the besieged Bosnian Muslims battling Serbian forces in Bosnia.
Clinton said in a television interview broadcast Wednesday night that, if the Serbs continue to reject the U.N.-sponsored peace agreement, "we think that we're going to have to look at some actions to try to give the Bosnians a means to at least defend themselves. I'm very concerned about this."
His statement represented a marked departure from previous Administration policy, which until now had endorsed a U.N.-imposed arms embargo on all parties in the Yugoslav conflict.
The signing of the accord by the Muslim-led Bosnian government and the Croats increases the pressure on Serbia to meet the terms of the peace pact and on the Administration to make good its pledge to come to Bosnia's aid. Permitting the shipment of weapons to Bosnia would require lifting a U.N. arms embargo that now applies equally to all factions in the former Yugoslav republic's 11-month-old civil war.
White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos acknowledged Thursday that ending the embargo against Bosnia is "under consideration. . . . We're considering a lot of options," he said. "I think that that's clearly one of the options."
Clinton had suggested during the presidential campaign that the embargo was unfair to the Bosnians because the Serbs control the vast stores of weaponry of the federal army of the former Yugoslav federation. He criticized the George Bush Administration for its neutrality in the conflict and urged stronger steps to support the Bosnians, who appear to be suffering abuses at the hands of the better-armed Serbs.
But as President, Clinton has adopted much the same policy as Bush and has--until now--endorsed the equal application of the arms embargo. European nations that have deployed peacekeeping forces to Bosnia persuaded Clinton that introducing new weapons into the region would inflame an already intolerable situation and put their troops at risk.
Representatives of the three main parties to the U.N.-sponsored talks--Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia--have been meeting at the United Nations to try to agree on a peace plan proposed by Vance and Owen.
At the United Nations on Thursday, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic approved key points of the plan, leaving the Serbs alone in opposing the truce effort. A U.N. announcement said that Izetbegovic signed a proposed map dividing Bosnia into 10 ethnic provinces and approved a separate agreement on interim political arrangements.
Bosnian Croat leader Mate Boban previously approved of the peace plan but on Thursday signed a revised map. It was not immediately known how the map was changed.
Fred Eckhard, spokesman for the international mediators, said that Karadzic "reserved his position."
The Administration has said that once an agreement among all parties is reached, the United States, acting in concert with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, would be willing to commit ground troops to Bosnia to enforce the accord. But as long as Karadzic holds out that pledge will not come into force.
Meantime, Clinton now is willing to consider the sale of arms to the Bosnians to ease their desperate military plight before a cease-fire.
Critics on the left and the right have charged the Administration with a timid policy that permits the continued slaughter of the Bosnians. His comment may have been meant as an effort to mollify those critics or as a threat to Serbia that the United States would accept a rearming of the Bosnians in light of the continuing frustration of the peace talks.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher, testifying before a House subcommittee Thursday, said there is a long way to go before a peace agreement acceptable to all parties can be reached. But he said the Administration hopes to bring pressure to bear on Serbia to endorse the accord.
"I hope that we will be reaching a situation where at least two of the parties have agreed and that will enable us to shine an even greater spotlight of world opinion on the third party and get them into agreement," Christopher said.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster contributed to this report.