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U.S. Gets Token Payoff on Bosnia Gamble : NATO: Allies give vague assurances on tougher military responses to rebels. Washington had hoped for pressure on Serbs to make peace.

October 01, 1994|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEVILLE, Spain — The Clinton Administration appeared Friday to have won only a token payoff on a gamble in which peace in the Balkans and the credibility of NATO were at stake.

Washington had hoped that by delaying moves to arm Bosnia-Herzegovina's outgunned government it might compel NATO allies to seriously pressure Bosnian Serb renegades to make peace.

But U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry left a two-day NATO strategy session here with little more than vague assurances from European defense ministers that "pinprick" air strikes would be replaced by more forceful action to induce the rebels to settle for two-thirds of the Bosnian territory they have overrun.

The alliance will press the U.N. bureaucracy to allow NATO pilots to carry out air strikes "with greater speed, with surprise and with more force than in the past," Perry said.

While accepting that decisions on when to use force rest with U.N. commanders, the defense ministers said NATO pilots summoned to carry out air strikes should have an array of targets to choose from to avoid cat-and-mouse searches for individual weapons that can endanger the air crews.

But grave doubts persisted about whether the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is prepared to risk the wrath of the heavily armed Serbs by punishing them for attacks on U.N. "safe havens" and for violating weapons exclusion zones.

It also remained unclear whether the defense chiefs' promise to pursue broader use of air power would satisfy Congress that NATO will act more decisively to protect Bosnian civilians.

President Clinton is obliged by Congress to ask the U.N. Security Council by Nov. 1 to lift an arms embargo hampering the Bosnian government if the Serb rebels continue to reject a peace plan drafted by the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.

But the four European members of that mediation team--known as the Contact Group--oppose lifting the embargo, fearing it will provoke rebel retaliation against British, French and Russian soldiers serving in the U.N. Protection Force. (Germany has no troops on the ground.)

The United States has refused to take part in the dubious U.N. ground force in Bosnia, where more than 20,000 peacekeepers are deployed on humanitarian missions in active war zones with neither the means nor the mandate to deter fighting.

And as the mission has bogged down and troops have become vulnerable to hostage-taking, pressure has been building in Congress for unilateral U.S. action to counteract the Serbs' huge advantage in weapons.

"Congress' underlying concern is that they wanted to put more pressure on the Bosnian Serbs to accept the peace plan, and I think any plan we present to them does that," Perry said of the proposed fine-tuning of alliance policy on air strikes.

Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic on Tuesday gave his support to a U.S. proposal to delay any delivery of arms to his forces for six months, as long as the Security Council would agree now to nullify the embargo.

France, Britain and Russia oppose lifting the embargo, even six months from now, yet the defense ministers exuded an attitude of having overcome disaster.

"The ministers were guided by the intention of presenting the American Administration a helping hand in order to defuse the menace of an early decision by the Congress," acting NATO Secretary General Sergio Balanzino said in an interview.

He insisted that the "political and psychological environment has changed" enough with Izetbegovic's statement to persuade Congress that there is no urgency for moves that could divide NATO.

Instead of threatening to confront the defiant Bosnian Serbs with a better-equipped government army, NATO appears to be depending on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to cut off the rebels and force them to accept the peace plan.

Perry conceded, however, that initial assessments from foreign monitors indicate that Serbia is still sending some contraband to Bosnian Serbs.

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