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U.S., Allies Said to be Moving Toward Military Strikes

By Roy Gutman

Newsday

BONN, Germany

Stung by the Bosnian Serbs' intransigence, the United States and the major European states are moving rapidly toward military strikes to halt the Serbs' "wanton aggression" in Bosnia, a high-ranking U.S. official said Thursday night.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher hopes to reach an accord on collective military steps before the Bosnian Serbs hold a referendum in 10 days, in response to international pressure to give up much of their conquest, the official said.

In a meeting that lasted 17 hours, the self-styled assembly of the Bosnian Serbs early Thursday turned down the settlement worked out by Lord David Owen and Cyrus Vance and instead called the referendum. Christopher dismissed the move as another "delaying tactic" and predicted a rubber-stamp of the assembly's rejection.

"The focus now will be solely on what we might do to devise some more effective actions to take against the Bosnian Serbs," the secretary of state told reporters here. "Until today we were basically discussing two different tracks. Now we're focusing on a single track." In Washington, President Clinton called the Serb rejection a "grave disappointment" and called for the international community to move "quickly and decisively."

In seeking allied accord, Christopher argued that the "international community has already waited too long to act," the State Department official said. The official added that the case "is compelling that it is high time to take action against the Serbs." Key U.S. allies such as Britain and France have been extremely reluctant to back intervention in Bosnia, in part because it is out of the area covered by NATO, in part out of expressed concern for the safety of troops they now have on the ground as peacekeepers.

But at the end of a day of meetings and telephone calls by Christopher with key European leaders, the senior official said the United States and its allies as well as their former rival, Russia, are "moving toward convergence." At the United Nations Thursday, non-aligned members of the Security Council demanded immediate action.

Venezuela's representative, Diego Arria, said it was time for "concrete action" because threats had not worked. "The Serbs have believed for so long that no one will put a finger on them and this lack of will and action has encouraged their behavior," he said.

The European states have not yet been prepared to announce outright support of intervention but are moving in that direction, the U.S. official said.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl is "very supportive of the direction" set out by Clinton, while France and Britain indicated shifts in their positions, he said. He also said there is "no difference on basic substance" with Russia, which has had historically friendly ties with Serbia.

In a telephone conversation, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe gave a "good response" to Christopher's request for support for military action. Meanwhile, Douglas Hogg, minister of state in the British foreign office, said Britain also wanted to be part of the consensus, the official said. Germany has no troops in Bosnia but has been reluctant to break stride with its major partners in the European community.

Even though the pace of diplomacy picked up Thursday, there seemed to be little certainty that the international community would act in time to save Zepa, a town jammed with 40,000 inhabitants and refugees and reported under fierce attack by Bosnian Serbs.

The high official said that multilateral diplomacy "takes some time" and "now that we're on this track, we are doing about as many things as is humanly possible." He expressed doubts about calls by many U.N. members to declare Zepa and other endangered towns safe havens.

He said a substantial number of troops would be needed to safeguard any city or village, and establishing havens under international protection would require moving civilians from their homes, amounting to an endorsement of the Serb-led "ethnic cleansing."

In addition, it was at best an interim step, he said, adding that he preferred to look for an endgame.

Christopher wraps up his weeklong trip Friday with a visit to Rome for talks with the Italian government. The senior official ruled out an extension of the trip or calling an urgent meeting of the NATO council on the grounds that there was little point to holding a meeting that had not been well prepared.

"It will take some time to conclude our discussions. But there are a number of things we can do in the interim," he said. "We will make good use of the time. The referendum will not be a major factor."