U.S. trying to prevent outbreak of fighting in Bosnia

March 19, 1995|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Having reduced the risk of war in Croatia by persuading it not to expel United Nations peacekeepers, President Clinton's foreign policy team is now seeking to prevent stepped-up fighting in Bosnia, but many officials predict a major outbreak of hostilities with the arrival of spring weather.

With a four-month cease-fire due to expire at the end of next month, Mr. Clinton's foreign policy advisers acknowledge that there is almost no chance of getting Bosnia's Muslim-dominated government and the country's rebel Serbs to agree to a peace plan by then.

'Clouds are darkening'

"The clouds of war are darkening," said Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke, who is the administration's point man on Bosnia. "The four-month period, the cease-fire, is running out. The incidents are increasing."

After receiving some arms from abroad this winter despite an international embargo, the government appears eager to attack Serbian lines to regain some of the 70 percent of Bosnia's territory held by the Serbs.

For their part, the Bosnian Serbs, helped by Croatian Serb soldiers, have mounted an offensive against the Muslim pocket of Bihac in northwestern Bosnia, an area where the cease-fire never took hold.

Making matters worse, sniper fire in the country's capital, Sarajevo, has intensified in recent weeks.

New stopgap policy

All but abandoning hope that the warring factions would resolve their differences soon, Secretary of State Warren Christopher proposed a new stopgap policy this past week that angered the Bosnian government: extending the fraying cease-fire beyond its expiration April 30.

Bosnian leaders immediately criticized the Christopher proposal, arguing that it would make it easier for the Serbs to solidify their control ofthe territory they had seized.

In an interview, Vice President Ejup Ganic of Bosnia said his country had originally insisted on a cease-fire of no more than four months for just this reason.

Mr. Ganic also contended that his government had never received the quid pro quo that was promised it for accepting the cease-fire.

The United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia -- the so-called "Contact Group" countries -- were supposed to exert pressure on Bosnia's Serbs to accept a peace plan that would reduce their holdings to 49 percent of Bosnia's land.

This past week, Mr. Ganic and other Bosnian leaders called for ending the cease-fire, lifting the international arms embargo against Bosnia, and having the North Atlantic Treaty Organization make good on its threats to bomb Bosnian Serb positions when the Serbs flouted the organization's warnings.

'Diplomacy without force'

"What we have now is diplomacy without force, and that's weak diplomacy," Mr. Ganic said. "What we need is diplomacy backed by force."

Administration officials acknowledge that they see no settlement soon. The administration has failed after months of threats, pressure, and cajoling to persuade the Bosnian Serbs to accept a peace plan put forward by the United States, Russia and Europe.

Similarly, it has failed to persuade President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, the dominant figure in the former Yugoslavia, to grant formal recognition to Bosnia and its borders, a move that would undermine the claims and spirit of the Bosnian Serbs.

Adding to the administration's problems, Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, has promised to introduce legislation to lift the arms embargo against Bosnia if there is no peace settlement by May 1.

Lifting the embargo

While Mr. Dole says lifting the embargo is needed to narrow the Bosnian Serbs' decisive arms advantage, the administration contends that ending the embargo unilaterally will intensify the war, cause Britain and France to withdraw their peacekeepers, and spread the war throughout the former Yugoslavia.

In a speech last week in Kansas, Defense Secretary William J. Perry described Mr. Dole's policy as "lift and pray." But some Republicans in Congress have countered by calling Mr. Clinton's policy "don't lift and pray."

Many supporters of lifting the embargo acknowledge that it may heighten the fighting in Bosnia, but they argue that such a move can serve as vital leverage to get Bosnia's Serbs to accept the Contact Group's peace plan.

Clinton administration officials say it is wrong to lift the embargo unilaterally and thus violate a U.N. Security Council resolution. The administration supports lifting it multilaterally, but Britain, France, and Russia are opposed.

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