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Clinton Aides Now Favor Concessions for Serbs

By Daniel Williams and Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Top Clinton administration policymakers Monday abandoned their long-standing support of allied military force to prod separatist Serbs in Bosnia to the negotiating table and decided instead to offer them significant diplomatic concessions, U.S. officials said.

The new U.S. policy, if approved by President Clinton, would move the United States much closer to the relatively conciliatory position on the Serbs maintained by the United States' European allies and Russia. Those allies have supported only limited use of military power on behalf of Bosnia's Muslim-led government and earlier Monday had harshly criticized Washington's Bosnia policy.

The United States has repeatedly labeled the Serbs as aggressors in the three-year-old Bosnian civil war. But after a White House meeting Monday afternoon, Washington is prepared to support concessions including some form of political link between the Serbs in Bosnia and those in neighboring Serbia.

The U.S. shift came as Serb forces tightened their hold on the Bihac pocket in northwestern Bosnia. The continued Serb advance there, in defiance of United Nations and NATO efforts to prevent it, has triggered a major confrontation between the United States and its European partners over how to best handle the deteriorating situation.

Earlier Monday, top officials in France and Russia criticized a recent U.S. decision to stop enforcing part of an international arms embargo against Bosnia. A senior United Nations officials called on all powers with peacekeeping forces in Bosnia to agree on a common policy or consider withdrawing.

The new approach was agreed to by Clinton's top foreign policy advisers, who met for three hours Monday to assess options for Bosnia. The immediate focus for U.S. diplomats, along with fellow "contact group" negotiators from Britain, Russia, France and Germany, will be to get the Serbs to agree to a temporary cease-fire, U.S. and Western diplomats said.

The lure will be the prospect of relief from economic sanctions and of political gains.

"We decided to get the contact group going and not push for military action," one administration official said.

While there was broad agreement on the diplomatic route as the only available potential solution, senior officials said that the issue of what inducements to offer the Serbs to accept a cease-fire remains "problematic" and a subject for further discussion.

For the second day in a row, top administration officials kept up a drumbeat of pessimistic assessments of the war in Bosnia. "It's obviously a deteriorating situation and our only hope is that at some point the parties recognize that there's no use in continuing the kind of carnage that is going on there," White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said on NBC's "Today."

On Sunday, Defense Secretary William J. Perry indicated that the Serbs had essentially won the war.

With that perspective, it was difficult to see how contact group diplomacy would succeed, particularly after the Bihac assault. The Serbs had already rejected a proposal to divide Bosnia nearly in half with the Muslims, even before the successful attack on the enclave. U.S. officials strained to explain why, with a major victory over the Muslims, the Serbs would be ready to deal, even with new concessions.

The decision to seek no further military action was made with an eye toward the upcoming meeting of NATO foreign ministers scheduled for Thursday in Brussels. Britain and France in particular opposed the frequent American calls for some sort of action to be taken, and the disagreements were straining the alliance. To get a cease-fire and eventual peace agreement, Washington and its mediating partners are relying on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to exert pressure on his erstwhile allies, the Bosnian Serbs. He already cut supplies that crossed his border, but a major loophole existed. Supplies going to Serbs in Croatia ended up in Bosnian Serb hands, U.S. officials said.

To close that hole, Milosevic is now being offered relief from economic sanctions that are strangling his country. He is also being pressed to recognize both Bosnia and Croatia as a step toward eased tensions. Contact group negotiators met four hours with him Monday in Belgrade.