WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration, in an abrupt policy change, is seriously considering mounting air attacks against Bosnian Serb positions to protect Sarajevo and the delivery of humanitarian relief to residents of the besieged capital, according to senior officials.
The new policy, discussed by President Clinton and his top advisers yesterday, would mark a major expansion of the existing U.S. commitment to use U.S. and NATO warplanes only to protect United Nations forces on the ground in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Mr. Clinton reaffirmed the commitment to protect U.N. peacekeepers yesterday.
But the new policy would broaden that to include virtually a blanket pledge to use U.S. air power to enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions in Bosnia, with an emphasis on preventing Sarajevo from falling and protecting its civilians.
But it was not clear how it would be put into effect. Under an existing policy, the United States has agreed to use air attacks to protect U.N. peacekeeping forces as part of NATO, but no raids have been requested by the U.N. forces. Such a request would go to the U.N. secretary-general who in turn would relay it to NATO.
Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher last week ruled out any U.S. military action to prevent Sarajevo from falling to Serbian forces who have surrounded the city and bombarded its residents for almost 16 months. He said the United States was doing all it could "consistent with its national interest."
That statement, a senior official said yesterday, reflected "the policy at the time," when officials were at an impasse over what to do to protect Sarajevo.
In May, the administration rejected sending ground forces to protect the city after the Pentagon estimated that 80,000 troops would be required, officials said.
But the question of how to ensure delivery of humanitarian aid in Sarajevo continued to preoccupy the president and his top advisers, particularly Mr. Christopher; W. Anthony Lake, his national security adviser; and Madeleine K. Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
A senior official described the new policy as nearing a final decision following congressional consultations.
Sarajevo's population already is weakened and malnourished from the Serbian siege, with water and utilities functioning only sporadically, if at all. With conditions worse than last year, many more people will die as cold weather sets in, U.S. officials believe.
At the U.N. headquarters in New York yesterday, France asked the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to speed up plans to provide air cover in Bosnia.
Its peacekeepers were hit twice this week during Bosnian Serb artillery bombardment. There are 7,500 peacekeepers near Sarajevo and 9,000 others elsewhere in Bosnia.
Concern for Kosovo
U.S. and allied officials also are becoming increasingly concerned about Serbian repression in the Serbian province of Kosovo and Serbia's denial of visas for international monitors in the province.
The Security Council is drafting a statement demanding that Serbia permit the monitors and warning against any spillover of violence.
The United States has twice warned Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic that it would launch military action against Serbia if it sought to extend "ethnic cleansing" to get rid of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
The Security Council, in authorizing all necessary means to ensure delivery of relief supplies to Bosnia, has granted enough authority to use air power in protecting the shipments moved in by air and truck convoy, U.S. officials say.
In the past, however, European countries with troops on the ground have insisted that air power would impede the humanitarian mission and endanger their forces.
The result has been that relief convoys have had to negotiate with Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat soldiers to get relief convoys past checkpoints, with the soldiers taking large amounts of food and supplies for themselves.
Use of military force would not be required if negotiations under way in Geneva result in a peace agreement acceptable to all sides and to a durable cease-fire. Previous negotiations ended in failure.
President Clinton reaffirmed yesterday the long-standing U.S. commitment to use air power, if requested, to protect U.N. soldiers in Sarajevo and five other Bosnian enclaves declared "safe areas" by the United Nations.
U.N. soldiers came under shelling attack last weekend, and their Belgian commander has threatened to retaliate against future assaults.
"We are prepared to fulfill our commitments," Mr. Clinton said yesterday, "and the procedure is as follows: The United Nations forces in Bosnia must ask the secretary-general of the United Nations for assistance. He will then relay that request to NATO, and we would act through NATO."
Later, at a news conference for Texas reporters, Mr. Clinton indicated that everything is ready for U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's formal request.
"All this will unfold over the next few days, during which time the Serbs, the Bosnian Serbs, either will or won't stop shelling Sarajevo and will pull back. We'll just have to wait and see what happens," he said.
Although NATO has announced that the necessary aircraft have been readied in Italy, the operation has been delayed by the United Nations' need to place special personnel in Bosnia to "spot" targets for warplanes and to prove communications capability.