WASHINGTON -- The United States and France sought yesterday to win allied support for a deadline requiring Bosnian Serbs to remove their heavy weaponry from around Sarajevo or face NATO air attacks.
The U.S.-French proposal, to be presented today at a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels, Belgium, could trigger the first NATO bombing attacks since the 16-nation alliance was formed 44 years ago. A decision by the allies could come today.
The proposal comes three days after the worst shelling attack on the Bosnian capital in the 22-month-old war. The attack killed 68 and wounded more than 200 civilians in a massacre that filled Western television screens with scenes of blood and agony.
President Clinton approved the plan Monday night in Shreveport, La., after it was presented to him by his national security adviser, Anthony Lake, following U.S.-French consultations. But winning allied support will test the president's leadership on an issue on which for a year he has been reluctant to assert himself.
It would set a deadline of seven to 10 days for Serbs to remove artillery, mortars or tanks from within a 12-mile radius of the city center, creating a "no-artillery zone in and around Sarajevo," a senior U.S. official said. If Serbs fail to comply, artillery sites would be bombed.
The plan would not punish the Serbs for Saturday's attack. Although they are widely believed to be responsible, the United Nations has been unable to produce proof.
The proposals also call for Serbian and Muslim forces to put their arms in and around Sarajevo under U.N. control. If Muslims refuse, the whole effort could come apart, although U.S. officials consider refusal unlikely.
Mr. Clinton spoke by telephone yesterday with a major holdout among the allies, Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada, which has 2,000 peacekeeping troops in Bosnia. Mr. Chretien fears that air attacks would draw retaliation on the ground.
"There are different levels of enthusiasm" among the allies, the senior U.S. official said.
Russia, which is not a member of the alliance and has longtime ties with Serbia, has voiced objections and could disrupt the effort. But one U.S. official said that Russia objects less to the U.S.-French proposal than to one of outright reprisals for past Serbian shelling.
France stepped up pressure on other NATO allies to approve the proposal yesterday, with Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warning that French peacekeepers could otherwise be withdrawn.
Members of Congress expressed bipartisan concern about U.S. intervention and who would be in charge of ordering any air strikes or other military operations.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that the orders would be passed through U.S officers serving with NATO, and not through the U.N. Command.
"We have been consistent in our view that the U.S. military operations in Bosnia, or any other place we are talking about, will be under U.S. command, or NATO command," Mr. Perry said.
He said he hoped the North Atlantic Council, the political arm of NATO, would approve a U.S. plan for responding to the Bosnian conflict this week.
Pressed by Chairman Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, on whether U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali could order U.S. air strikes, General Shalikashvili told the committee: "The U.N. can request. The U.N. can ask for coordination [with U.N. troops on the ground]. But the U.N. cannot order."
Any decision on launching air strikes would be taken by the North Atlantic Council. It would be relayed through two U.S. officers serving with NATO: Gen. George A. Joulwan, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, and Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, commander-in-chief of NATO's southern command.
Mr. Perry agreed with Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, that Congress should be consulted before U.S. military involvement. Earlier this week, Mr. Perry said he took seriously "the limitations" of air strikes, against either artillery targets or targets "deliberately embedded" in civilian areas, an apparent reference to the mortars inside Sarajevo.
Senator McCain said the United States should stop making threats it was not prepared to carry out and should lift the arms embargo against the Muslims. He dismissed the reported U.S. proposal to give the Bosnian Serbs an ultimatum to remove their guns 12 miles from Sarajevo or face military action as "a bureaucratic solution," and said it was "a slippery slope" likely to lead to incremental U.S. involvement.
"If you embark on this policy, you had better be able to tell the American people what you do if it fails," he warned Mr. Perry and General Shalikashvili. Senator McCain reminded General Shalikashvili that the general had testified previously that air strikes alone were not generally effective. The general replied, "I don't walk away from the statement."