Clinton confident U.S. won't act alone in Bosnia Warnings on air strikes soft-pedaled

August 03, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton played down assertions yesterday that U.S. warplanes would act alone to stop the Bosnian Serb onslaught in Sarajevo, predicting confidently that European allies will back his initiative for tougher military action to stop the bloodshed.

As NATO ambassadors met in Brussels to consider U.S. proposals for greater Western military intervention in Bosnia, Mr. Clinton told reporters here: "We are working with the allies. We believe we will be able to work through to a common position."

NATO officials in Europe said the ambassadors agreed that Sarajevo should not fall, the Geneva peace talks among the three warring Bosnian factions must succeed and the flow of humanitarian aid to the Bosnian people must be safeguarded. But there was no agreement on how to reach those objectives.

A diplomat in Brussels, Belgium, said air strikes were only one of the possible options under consideration, but they failed to win immediate backing yesterday.

A NATO official said that Britain and France, which have the largest peacekeeping contingents on the ground in Bosnia, were most opposed to the plan, concerned that Bosnian Serbs might retaliate against the peacekeepers, who are lightly armed and outnumbered.

"A lot of people are concerned about their people on the ground," the diplomat said.

The United States, which called the emergency session, warned Sunday that it was determined to act alone if its allies remained opposed to letting NATO aircraft attack Serb positions in Bosnia.

"The United States is determined to act," the State Department spokesman, Mike McCurry, said to reporters traveling with Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher. "We prefer to act in a multilateral fashion. We certainly believe it is possible we will act within the NATO framework [but] we have made it clear we are determined to act."

Yesterday, Mr. Clinton and his top aides moved swiftly to play down Mr. McCurry's comments, which seemed intended as a sign to the Europeans of the administration's resolve.

"I think we're not at that point yet," the White House senior adviser, George Stephanopoulos, said about unilateral U.S. air strikes. Speaking on NBC's "Today Show," he said: "We fully expect that we're going to work with our allies on this."

Some U.S. officials said the administration had no choice but to play "good cop, bad cop" by offsetting Mr. McCurry's tough talk abroad with more conciliatory words from the White House, which were needed mainly to allay domestic U.S. fears about imminent unilateral military action.

If the NATO ambassadors agree to use air power to stop the siege of Sarajevo, NATO military officers would still have to put the final touches on an operations plan, meaning that the start of an expanded air mission would be several days away, a senior administration official said.

One unresolved issue for U.S. planners is whether more U.S. aircraft will be needed for a more aggressive mission than would be needed for the already approved mission of safeguarding peacekeepers.

Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who has been soliciting the views of commanders in the field, is expected to discuss the options today with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The chiefs have backed the use of air power to defend U.N. peacekeepers but continue to have misgivings over any expanded mission.

A NATO military official in Europe said one option receiving considerable attention would involve air strikes against Bosnian Serb command-and-control facilities and other "centers of gravity" that NATO warplanes could hit at will, without having to rely on U.N. commanders on the ground to select each target and make a formal request for an air strike.

Unlike attacks on mobile or easily concealed Serbian artillery pieces, strikes against command centers, ammunition depots and other war-fighting facilities valued by Bosnian Serbs could be hit without ground-based forward air controllers, who must help pilots guide their precision weapons by designating the targets with hand-held lasers, the official said.

The commander of the Bosnian Serb air force, Gen. Zivomir Ninkovic, said yesterday that Bosnian Serbs would respond "by all available means" to any Western attack.

Pentagon officials insist that no Americans will be among the French, British and Dutch controllers assigned to the peacekeeping units in Bosnia. Under the plan for limited air strikes to protect the peacekeepers, the controllers would communicate with a command center in Kiseljak, about 17 miles west of Sarajevo, where a peacekeeping commander would decide whether to call in air support.

The NATO official said there had been little enthusiasm among U.N. troops in recent days for a more aggressive use of air power -- and even some reluctance among their commanders over having to justify the selection of targets for NATO air strikes.

For this reason, the official said, "if the [air] mission is broadened, I think you'll see minimal U.N. involvement."

Nonetheless, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said the use of air strikes was a decision resting with him, according to U.N. resolutions.

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