WASHINGTON — A group of key senators returning from military briefings in Europe said Thursday that U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia must be reinforced with heavy arms and more troops to defend themselves from reprisals if President Clinton orders air strikes.
"These forces need to be beefed up," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). "They are so lightly armed now they are, in effect, hostages.
"If we have to move to another phase, a phase of actually using force, it's essential that they have the ability to protect themselves, or we could have real problems," Nunn warned.
Nunn and Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.)--two senators whose views can be expected to carry considerable weight in the coming congressional debate over Bosnia--also indicated that the military options being weighed by Clinton are not confined to air strikes against Serbian artillery positions.
"There are a raft of options available. . . . Some have been reported but a great many have not been," Lugar said, declining to be more specific about the options that the senators discussed in classified briefings with Adm. Jeremy Michael Boorda, commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in southern Europe.
Nunn, who warned that Clinton needs to plan a military strategy that goes well beyond token air strikes against Bosnian Serb artillery positions, said that the Pentagon is in the process of drawing up more "comprehensive plans" to use force in Bosnia but that "the question is whether they are going to be adopted."
While he was careful not to criticize Clinton--with whom he already has been engaged in disagreements over defense cuts and gays in the military--Nunn indicated that the President has not yet made enough preparations either at home or abroad to intervene in Bosnia.
One immediate concern that needs to be addressed, the returning senators said, is European opposition to air strikes, in part because of the fears that the small U.N. peacekeeping force would become targets for Serb reprisals.
"The potential for a hostage situation developing is great," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), second-ranking GOP member of the Armed Services panel.
"If we commit to air strikes, (U.N. forces) may have to fight their way out of Bosnia," added Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.). "We ought to make sure they are able to do it."
Nunn said that he and the other senators would recommend to Clinton that the U.N. troops be reinforced and restructured to assume more of a military mission than a humanitarian one.
Their comments, along with those by other lawmakers attending closed-door briefings on Bosnia on Thursday, reinforced what appears to be an emerging consensus on Capitol Hill that some form of military intervention is inevitable, now that the Bosnian Serbs' self-styled parliament has rejected an internationally mediated peace plan, referring it to a public referendum later this month.
The nation stands "at a real crossroads," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as he emerged from one of the briefings given by Defense Secretary Les Aspin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell.
"Whichever of these paths we go down, we're going to have substantial military involvement," Hamilton said.
"The potential use of air strikes has a great deal of risk," Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said. "It could backfire. It could escalate in the wrong direction. But I think they've gone beyond that now in that the rejection (of the peace plan) by the Bosnian Serbs is going to force that next level of action," he added.
Other lawmakers emerging from the briefings by Aspin and Powell indicated that the two men discussed no new options beyond those already disclosed.
Times staff writer Melissa Healy contributed to this story.