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U.S. Wants Bihac Declared Weapons Exclusion Zone


WASHINGTON — The United States is pressing its major Western allies to join in formally prohibiting the use of heavy weapons around the embattled Bosnian city of Bihac, in a move to head off further military gains in the area by the Bosnian Serbs.

At the urging of the United States, the North Atlantic Council, which is the policy-setting body of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, completed an initial review of the plan in Brussels on Tuesday and sent the proposal on to NATO military headquarters in Mons, Belgium, for further consideration.

The U.S. plan would create a heavy-weapons exclusion zone around Bihac--similar to those already established around Sarajevo and Gorazde--that would prohibit the Bosnian Serbs from moving tanks or artillery within about a six-mile radius of the city's center.

The idea behind the move would be to prevent further Bosnian Serb gains, which U.S. officials fear might prompt neighboring Croatia to intervene militarily to help defend Bihac--a move that U.S. officials are concerned could widen the war significantly.

But Western officials said that the U.S. proposal is meeting a lukewarm response, particularly from the British and French, who would be asked to contribute the bulk of the additional U.N. peacekeeping troops that probably would be needed to police the zone. Any violations of the weapons prohibition would be subject to NATO air strikes, if such actions were requested by the U.N. commander.

The only U.N. peacekeeping troops in Bihac right now are 1,200 Bangladeshis, who are poorly armed and equipped and are considered unfit to enforce any kind of exclusion zone. And Serbian forces have refused to permit the United Nations to send reinforcements or more equipment.

It was not immediately clear whether the allies ultimately would agree to go ahead with the proposal. "We're willing to look at it, but there are a lot of questions that go with it," a European official said Tuesday.

Analysts said that, besides the question of added peacekeeping troops, the U.S. proposal would constitute another use of the exclusion zone to tilt the battle in favor of the Bosnian Muslims--at a time when the allies want to appear neutral as they try to coax the Serbs into making peace.

Willy Claes, NATO's new secretary general, and other key NATO officials are scheduled to discuss the issue with top U.S. policy-makers when they visit Washington later this week and early next week for previously scheduled meetings. But no decision is expected immediately.

Kenneth H. Bacon, the Pentagon's spokesman, said Tuesday that the Administration regards the current standoff as "a crucial time" in the Bosnian situation. He declined to comment on specific details of the U.S. proposal.

The Bosnian Muslims captured much of the territory around the city two weeks ago, but since then the Bosnian Serbs have rallied and have retaken 50% of the territory. Bihac, in northwest Bosnia, is close to the Croatian border.

Creation of the new exclusion zone would not require additional U.N. approval. The U.N. Security Council already has given that authority to NATO and the commanders of the U.N. peacekeeping troops in the country. All they would need to do would be to declare it.

Along with the proposal to establish an exclusion zone, the United States also has suggested that the allies extend the "no fly" zone currently in effect over Bosnia to portions of neighboring Croatia to prevent Bosnian Serb planes from using the area to strike Bihac.

The developments came as NATO formally agreed to continue its arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims without full U.S. participation in the wake of Washington's notice last week that American forces no longer would help enforce the restrictions.

Ambassadors from the organization's 16 member countries endorsed an assessment by the NATO military committee saying that the U.S. withdrawal is "unlikely to degrade the overall military effectiveness of the operation."

Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Zagreb, Croatia, contributed to this article.

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