WASHINGTON -- President Bush, trying to control the politically explosive reaction to growing Yugoslav horror, proposed yesterday a system of international monitors throughout the Balkan region to contain the conflict and hinted at a broad NATO military role.
In his most comprehensive policy statement on the war in the former Yugoslavia, Mr. Bush voiced determination to get United Nations authorization for the use of force to ensure that humanitarian aid is delivered in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Suggesting that the military mission might eventually have to be broadened, he told reporters at a Colorado Air Force base: "We are consulting with our allies in NATO on all aspects of this crisis and how the alliance . . . might be of assistance to the United Nations."
He said the practice of "ethnic cleansing," forcing whole civilian populations from their homes, must be stopped, and he vowed that detention camps that allegedly have been used for executions and torture would be opened for inspection.
The president, in a slap at Serbia, announced the opening of diplomatic relations with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia and Croatia, whose independence the United States has already recognized. Serbia is viewed by Washington as the chief aggressor in the fighting.
Mr. Bush's statement marked the first time in recent days that he has taken the lead in speaking strongly for the United States on the conflict, which has stirred increasingly sharp political debate in the wake of charges that Serbs have been operating Nazi-type death camps.
His previous reticence reflected the government's deep reluctance to become militarily embroiled in an ethnic conflict that officials felt was primarily a European responsibility.
The president has been buffeted all week by accusations from Capitol Hill, the Clinton campaign and outside groups for being too slow in responding to the latest reports of atrocities. Critics have charged that administration reluctance showed a failure to grasp some of the far-reaching turbulence wrought by the end of the Cold War.
In proposing the system of monitors, Mr. Bush acknowledged growing fears within his own government that the bloodshed could ignite a wider war and pose a more direct challenge to U.S. interests.
"We must engage in preventive diplomacy to preclude a widening of the conflict into Kosovo, Vojvodina, . . . Macedonia," he said, listing other Yugoslav areas. He proposed that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe place monitors "to provide an international presence and inhibit human rights abuses and violence."
He went on: "We must contain the conflict, and prevent its spilling over into neighboring states like Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. And to this end, the United States proposes that the international community again place civilian monitors, thereby reassuring these governments of our concern for their welfare and inhibiting any aggression against them."
Mr. Bush acknowledged having trouble getting even Britain and France -- which he did not name -- to sign on to the U.S.-proposed U.N. resolution authorizing "all necessary measures" to back delivery of humanitarian aid.
The military mission contemplated -- using air and naval power -- appears to be more open-ended than mere protection of airlifts and convoys. Mr. Bush spoke of the need to "establish conditions necessary to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Bosnia-Herzegovina."
But he said, "The international community cannot stand by and allow innocent children, women and men to be starved to death."
Mr. Bush cautioned that regardless of international efforts, the conflict could not be ended in the short term. "Blood feuds are very difficult to resolve. . . . Bringing peace again to the Balkans will literally take years of work," he said.
Questioned by reporters, Mr. Bush said he had ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to use "every asset available" to confirm reports of Serb-operated death camps.
"We know that there is horror in these detention camps," he said. "But in all honesty I can't confirm to you some of the claims that there is indeed a genocidal process going on there." He vowed to "open any and all detention camps to international inspection."
Questions about when U.S. officials became aware of allegations of atrocities in the camps prompted a search through weeks of cables at the State Department yesterday.
Officials said it was only in the last 10 days or two weeks that credible information emerged pointing to atrocities in the camps. Press reports of alleged death camps emerged in the last week, giving new impetus to U.S. pressure to open up the camps.
Meanwhile, after one of its calmest nights in a week, fighting intensified in Sarajevo later yesterday.
A U.N. spokesman said the airport was caught in a cross-fire of mortar bombs, artillery shells and rockets, the heaviest exchange of fire around the airport since the United Nations suspended relief flights Tuesday.
The exchange seemed to dim hopes of resuming the aid tomorrow.
U.N. spokesman Mik Magnusson said the headquarters of the U.N. Protection Force also had been hit. He added, "It isn't a healthy omen for the U.N. to have its men under fire when airport operations have been suspended and we are evaluating our mission."