WASHINGTON -- The United Nations Security Council, prodded by reports of killings and torture of detainees in the former Yugoslavia, demanded last night that detention camps be opened to international inspection.
The action, a statement by the council president, was instigated by the Bush administration, which is under growing political pressure to take forceful action to prevent atrocities by Serbian forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Recent reports of Muslims and Croatians being tortured and killed in the camps have thrown a harsh spotlight on the administration's reluctance to become deeply involved in the Yugoslav conflict beyond monitoring sanctions against Serbia and ensuring delivery of humanitarian relief.
The accounts have fueled Democratic criticism of administration caution and highlighted internal divisions between officials pressing for a more forceful American role and those who resist ** putting American forces into a potential quagmire.
Top administration officials decided yesterday morning to seek Security Council endorsement of a statement demanding immediate, continued and unimpeded access by the # International Red Cross. The council did so about 7 p.m.
The statement carries no binding authority. It is less authoritative than U.N. resolutions, which the Yugoslav combatants have consistently defied anyway.
Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, who led U.N. peacekeepers at Sarajevo airport, said at the United Nations that he had received complaints from all factions of concentration camp atrocities, the Associated Press reported. The pace of allegations increased about two months ago as Serbs accelerated their "ethnic cleansing" campaign, he said.
The U.S. move roughly coincided with calls for stronger American action from Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton, running mate Al Gore and Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
As reminders of America's inaction during the Nazi Holocaust reverberated in Washington, the Bush policy drew sharp criticism on Capital Hill, and the State Department received calls from the press and public around the country, officials said.
Mr. Clinton, in a written statement issued from his campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Ark., urged U.N. action similar to that sought by the administration as a first step, but went further to include the possible use of force.
Beyond gaining access to the camps, Mr. Clinton demanded that all non-combatants be released to the Red Cross, that any detention centers be closed immediately and that military prisoners of war be held under conditions defined by international law.
In addition, Mr. Clinton's statement said: "The United Nations demands should be backed up by collective action, including the use of force, if necessary. The United States should be prepared to lend appropriate support, including military, to such an operation."
The administration lent credence to the latest accounts Monday, saying that its own information corresponded with press reports.
"We do know from our own reports, information similar to the press reports, that the Serbian forces are maintaining what they call detention centers for Croatians and Muslims, and we do have our own reports similar to the reports that you've seen in the press, that there have been abuses and torture and killings taking place in those areas," said Richard Boucher, a State Department spokesman.
Yesterday, however, U.S. officials backed off this assertion, stressing that they did not have actual confirmation of such atrocities because neither American envoys nor international relief agencies had entered the camps.
"We are aware of course of the charges that the Bosnian Serbs have been operating what amount to death camps," Thomas Niles, assistant secretary of state for European Affairs, told the // Foreign Affairs Committee.
But, he said, "We cannot confirm reports which were in the press this morning and yesterday that they are being used for the systematic torture and murder of the people detained." He did not deny however, that "atrocities, totally unacceptable acts by Serbian authorities" had been committed.
Despite lack of confirmation, some officials fear that the situation in the camps could be even more horrible than refugees have described it.
The United States has had trouble enlisting Security Council authorization for military action to back up the delivery of relief supplies. The Bush administration is prepared to use air and naval power, but not ground troops, for such an effort. Britain, among others, is still not sure such authorization is the best course.
Officials pressing for stronger U.S. action want to see the definition of humanitarian relief expanded beyond food and medical care to relieving conditions in the detention camps.
The dominant Bush administration view appears to oppose any action that risks military entanglement on the ground. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told Cable News Network on Monday: "We've got to be very, very careful, when we use U.S. military force, not to fall into the trap of committing them into an uncertain situation where they don't have a clear-cut objective, where it's not clear who the enemy is and where we can't define what victory would be after we got there."