Britain urges U.S. to resist pressure to use force against Serbs in Bosnia

April 20, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The spine-stiffening British are still at it, but with a different result nowadays.

In the Persian Gulf crisis, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned President Bush not to go wobbly against Saddam Hussein.

Now her successor, John Major, is exhorting President Clinton to stand firm in a different way: against political pressure for military action against the Serbs in Bosnia.

Since Serbian aggression in Bosnia began more than a year ago, Britain has pressed for a political solution and resisted any move that might interfere with the noncoercive delivery of relief supplies or put at risk British forces already on the ground in the Balkans.

As Serbs stood poised to lock in major territorial gains in eastern Bosnia on Friday, President Clinton said he wanted allies at least to consider what had previously been unacceptable in halting the Balkan carnage, implying direct military action.

But after he and Mr. Major chewed over the problem in a 50-minute telephone talk on Sunday, the result was to maintain the status quo.

On both sides of the Atlantic, officials referred to the military options still under consideration, but laid their stress on the tighter sanctions voted by the U.N. Security Council on Saturday. These are intended to place an effective land and sea blockade against Serbian commerce and freeze Serbian financial assets around the world.

Saturday's vote, while conducted in a crisis atmosphere, made little practical difference in allied plans for the embargo, since the United States, Britain and France bowed to a Russian veto threat and agreed to put off the effective date of the sanctions until April 26, the day after a Russian referendum that will determine whether President Boris N. Yeltsin has his people's confidence.

On Friday, the State Department had said the United States wanted the sanctions to take effect immediately.

The delay in imposing sanctions did not prevent Mr. Yeltsin's special envoy on Yugoslavia, Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Churkin, from criticizing the Security Council yesterday for "some hastiness" and from saying he was concerned "at certain military thinking and some diplomatic talk about strikes and blows in Bosnia."

Meanwhile, the United Nations has acquiesced in the virtual surrender to Serbian forces of Srebrenica, a key Muslim holdout preventing the creation of a "greater Serbia" that would incorporate eastern Bosnia.

Asked yesterday whether the United States considered Srebrenica to have fallen, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher replied: "At this point I think it's immaterial to argue over the status of Srebrenica."

Mr. Clinton has insisted that the United States would not act on its own against the Serbs.

During the Sunday phone call, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Major agreed that it was vital to continue humanitarian relief efforts. The need to protect such efforts from retaliation so far has been a key argument against Western military action.

They also discussed, without reaching a conclusion, the

possibility of arming the Bosnian Muslims or launching air strikes against Serbian positions, a British official said. "We're still sticking with the existing policy because the alternative is deeply unattractive," this official said.

Mr. Major is believed to have laid out Britain's case against both actions in much the same terms Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd used yesterday in a statement to the House of Commons.

"There is the danger that it might prolong and extend the conflict and imperil the humanitarian effort," Mr. Hurd told parliament, referring to the lifting of the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims.

On air strikes, Mr. Hurd argued anew that "such strikes would probably have only limited military value unless supported by troops on the ground." Mr. Clinton has ruled out the use of U.S. ground troops.

The new round of consultations stems from growing domestic political pressure, here and in London and Paris, to end the Bosnian carnage.

"Administrations in all three capitals are under intense pressure to be seen to be doing more than they are at the moment," said an official familiar with contacts among the allies.

Arguing against hasty action, Mr. Hurd said: "We need to consider not just what sounds satisfying today, but where we might stand in, say, four or five weeks, or four or five months after the first air strike or the first delivery of arms."

In Britain, strong pressure is coming from Mrs. Thatcher, who in the past had shown great skill in striking a popular chord with a principled stand.

Her comments have been dismissed by high officials in both capitals as emotional reactions. But over the weekend, they brought an echo both from Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine.

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