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NATO Leaders More Willing To Act against Bosnian Serbs

By Daniel Williams
and Ann Devroy

The Washington Post

PRAGUE, Czech Republic

After trying to keep the issue at bay, the United States joined its allies Tuesday in sharpening a threat to use airstrikes in Bosnia, with President Clinton asserting that Western resolve to turn threats into action is stronger than before.

At the NATO summit conference in Brussels, allied leaders formally repeated a pledge made in August to bomb Bosnian Serb militias to "prevent the strangulation of Sarajevo'' and other areas of Bosnia under siege. After French and British leaders pressed the issue at a dinner late Monday, a more specific call was added: for NATO's military command to "urgently'' produce plans to unblock the town of Srebrenica, where Canadian peacekeepers are stranded, and to free the airport in Tuzla to receive relief supplies.

"Everybody who voted for it recognized that air power might be used,'' Clinton said at a news conference Tuesday. He pointedly warned that the West had to keep its pledges or look increasingly powerless. "I don't know if the threshold is lower, but there are more instances in which air power can be used,'' he said.

The new warning came in a communique approved by all 16 member states at the end of a two-day NATO summit conference in Brussels, before Clinton traveled to Prague for meetings with leaders of the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

The NATO statement reflected the ability of France in particular to make the deteriorating situation in Bosnia a focal point of the summit, overcoming U.S. efforts to play it down.

The United States supported the language, but only "if we were prepared to follow through, on the theory that we should not say things that we do not intend to do,'' Clinton said.

The ambiguity over airstrikes highlighted the difficulties in making decisions when political resolve for clear action is missing. NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner directly referred to the issue in his closing statement Tuesday when, referring to designs to set up NATO for new roles, he said, "We have made NATO fit for action. The main thing still is the political will and determination of our member nations.''

There appeared to be a bit of bluff in Tuesday's NATO threat. British and U.S. officials said it is unlikely bombs will fall, because they expect the Serbs to ease up on the two towns mentioned in the communique. They noted that after August, following the allied warning, the Serbs temporarily eased a siege of Sarajevo.

U.S. officials said the French and British were being hypocritical in specifying Tuzla and Srebrenica, since the two countries have long opposed NATO airstrikes for fear of endangering their own peacekeeping troops in Bosnia. Moreover, Tuzla and Srebrenica were included under the August threat of air action.

Reporters pressed Clinton and other U.S. officials on why the Serbs should take new warnings seriously when the West has failed to act before. Clinton responded by appearing to cast the United States as a detached observer of a psychological shift among the British and French.

He acknowledged there is still disagreement on actually using force. "Some of us, I think it's clear, were stronger than others about the appropriateness of it,'' he said.

A senior U.S. official said the French and British want to threaten airstrikes only for missions that are limited to a specific military objective, such as opening a road. Bombing to help ease a siege in Sarajevo might bring on a major escalation in fighting -- something London and Paris fear, the official added.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Secretary of State Warren Christopher lobbied him as late as Friday night to put talk of airstrikes aside. Sunday night, French, British and other diplomats assured Christopher that reference to airstrikes in the communique would be limited to a reaffirmation of the August threat.

Yet, at dinner Monday night, French President Francois Mitterrand and British Prime Minister John Major pressed for action at Tuzla and Srebrenica. After Clinton agreed, the precise wording was worked out in intense lower-level discussions early Tuesday.

In its final actions, NATO approved the Partnership for Peace to cooperate with armies from the former East Bloc in hopes of bridging longstanding divisions and eventually offering membership in the alliance to some. But they stopped short of granting membership and security guarantees to the so-called Visegrad nations -- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, all former Soviet satellites that fear Russian expansion and agreed to cooperate in their security policies.