WASHINGTON -- The United States accused Serbia yesterday of acting as an "aggressor" in trying to seize control of large parts of neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina and considered new steps to isolate the Bel- grade government as an international pariah.
Among options is the reduction, downgrading or removal altogether of U.S. diplomatic representation in Belgrade, officials said.
The new pressure reflects the growing importance of the Yugoslav conflict in the eyes of U.S. policy-makers. Content for months to take a back seat to the European Community as the Yugoslav federation fell apart, officials now see a stronger U.S. role as important in showing a continuing commitment to European security.
They also view the Balkan war as a harbinger of destabilizing post-Cold War security challenges to come, arising over minority rights, historical claims and ethnic conflict.
The U.S. move came as thousands of refugees fled advancing Serb forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina yesterday, the Associated Press reported. Serb forces have overrun two Muslim-dominated towns along the Serbian border since Sunday after capturing about a half-dozen others in previous weeks.
Several hundred people have died in the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina since a popular vote there for independence a Feb. 29 referendum. Almost a quarter-million people have been driven from their homes in the fighting since late March, according to United Nations estimates.
This republic of 4.3 million people has three major ethnic groups: Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Serbs claim 70 percent of the territory even though they account for only 32 percent of the republic's population.
Most of Bosnia-Herzegovina's 1.4 million Serbs reject the republic's separation from Serbia by an international border. Their resistance has included Serbian paramilitary fighters assisted by Serb-dominated Yugoslav troops.
Describing continuing fighting in much of the republic, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "All indications are that Serbian forces and the Serbian government are attempting to increase their control over extensive parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina."
Rejecting Serbian claims of U.S. bias, Mr. Boucher also said, "The Serbian leadership appears to want the world and the Serbian public to believe that it is the victim and not the aggressor. It is abundantly clear, however, to the international community, and we hope for the Serbian people as well, that the Serbian civilian and military leaders bear the overwhelming burden of responsibility for the violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina."
He labeled Serbia as the "aggressor."
The harsh public words and unofficial threats of slashing diplomatic representation buttressed a senior State Department
envoy, Ralph Johnson, who arrived in Belgrade yesterday to meet with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
Mr. Johnson, a deputy assistant secretary of state who flew into Bosnia over the weekend with a cargo of relief supplies, is to report to Secretary of State James A. Baker III later this week.
Serbian gunners shelled Sarajevo while Mr. Johnson was in that city.
The United States followed the European lead in recognizing Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Any move to withdraw diplomats from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and nominally the capital of Yugoslavia, would be coordinated with European powers. The idea has not seriously been discussed among European Community members, a European diplomat said yesterday.
Europeans have seriously discussed expelling Belgrade from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. They also are considering withdrawing from Serbia the preferential trade treatment that only recently was restored.
The United States has already withdrawn preferential trade treatment while imposing an arms embargo on the warring republics.
The higher-profile U.S. effort to help Bosnia, begun last week with Mr. Baker's calls to European leaders, had a tactical advantage for the United States, an official said. It was useful for the United States to be seen assisting Muslims in Bosnia as the United Nations imposed sanctions against Libya.
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md., said yesterday she had arranged for a group of Serbian-American leaders to meet last Thursday with Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger.
Mrs. Bentley said the leaders told the U.S. officials that U.S. recognition of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia had set off the violence.