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Officials Confer on Lifting Bosnian Arms Embargo

By Paul Richter
Los Angeles Times

U.S. officials, Bosnian leaders and other allies conferred Monday on a new proposal that could break the stalemate over the Bosnia arms embargo and abruptly shift the balance of power in the three-year civil war.

Convening at the United Nations for several days of meetings, top officials are debating a suggested compromise to lift the embargo and to permit weapons shipments to the Muslim-led Bosnian army - and thus come closer to matching the firepower of their Bosnian Serb adversaries - but not until early next year.

The proposal, first aired by Bosnian officials last month, has apparently softened the steadfast opposition of British and French officials who have threatened to pull their troops out of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia if the arms embargo is lifted.

They would withdraw their forces out of a concern that a resolution allowing arms to Bosnia might provoke an all-out Bosnian Serb offensive that would endanger their troops. The proposed delay would allow the allies to find safer positions for their troops, or withdraw them entirely.

The delay also may weaken Russian opposition to lifting the embargo. Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Monday she believed "that as the situation evolves, they may, in fact, see some value" in such a move.

In addition, an agreement would enable the United States to sidestep a fast-approaching Oct. 15 deadline for action on the issue. President Clinton has promised to urge the U.N. Security Council to end the embargo if the Bosnian Serbs do not agree by that date to a peace plan advanced by the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.

The president also has promised to consult Congress on possibly lifting the embargo unilaterally if the Security Council doesn't go along. So far, the Bosnian Serbs have rejected the peace plan. The Bosnian government accepted it.

Ending the embargo next month poses potentially serious problems: It could escalate the war swiftly, possibly spilling over into neighboring countries, and it would probably draw the United States into the job of acting as a kind of military sponsor for the Bosnians.

There was some speculation that the Bosnian Muslims feared lifting the ban immediately would lead to the swift evacuation of U.N. troops and an all-out attack by the Serbs on the Muslims.

Asked at a news conference what would induce the Serbs to hold off such an offensive if the embargo were lifted next year instead, Bosnian Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey said that "we have reasons to expect" the United Nations would now heed Clinton's demand that it call more air strikes against the Serbs and expand the number of zones that exclude Serbian heavy weapons.

Lifting the embargo also means the United States "would have some real responsibility to arm and equip" the Bosnian Muslims, said one U.S. official. This obligation often had been overlooked by those eager to end the arms ban, the official said.

The developments came as Clinton delivered an annual U.N. address in which he appealed to the U.N. General Assembly to end the growing "strangulation" of the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo and urged the use of NATO warplanes to get the job done.

In a speech that resonated with his growing frustration, Clinton warned that after a period of improvement, conditions around Sarajevo have "once again deteriorated substantially."

"A new resolve by the United Nations to enforce its resolutions is now necessary to save Sarajevo," Clinton declared. "NATO stands ready to act."

Clinton also used his speech to explain an American foreign policy that even many allies in the U.N. audience have found erratic. The President pointed to recent U.S. interventions - notably Haiti - to try to calm fears that the United States was turning decisively away from international involvements.

Clinton sought to minimize the differences with his allies in his 25-minute address, as he reviewed U.S. interventions that have taken place on three continents over the past year. He cited Haiti to show that the United States would risk its blood and money when the list of its criteria for peace-keeping missions were met.

In ticking off the recent history of U.S. involvements, Clinton did not hint at U.S. ambivalence about Somalia, where U.S. forces were abruptly withdrawn, or Rwanda, where forces were dispatched after critics complained of American foot-dragging.