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US Talks Tough on Bosnia, But Action May Be Too Late

US reasserts its leadership in West by pushing for airstrikes to end civil war

THE Balkans civil war now seems poised between a promise of peace and the threat of United States military intervention.

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic finally has signed onto a peace plan drawn up by international mediators Lord David Owen and Cyrus Vance (Serb reaction, below). At the same time, Secretary of State Warren Christopher is touring European capitals, soliciting support for more- forceful measures - including limited US air strikes - to curb Bosnian Serb aggression.

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Whether Mr. Karadzic's signature will make Secretary Christopher's trip pointless remains to be seen. Pieces of paper have meant little in the former Yugoslavia so far. But whatever happens next in the bitter Balkans conflict, it has already been long and hard enough to leave permanent scars on Europe's physical and political landscape:

* Much of Bosnia has been destroyed or ethnically "cleansed" of Muslims by Bosnian Serb aggressors. With Serbs controlling some 70 percent of the country, they are now talking terms in a war they have largely won.

US-led airstrikes may be able to save Muslim refugees, but it is more difficult to see how any action by the West can return more than a small portion of what Muslims have lost.

A visitor to Bosnia 18 months ago could still see intact cities in the hinterlands, says Daniel Nelson, a professor at Old Dominion University and former foreign policy adviser to the House of Representatives leadership. "Now there's rubble," says Mr. Nelson, who traveled through the former Yugoslavia in April.

* Western Europe's security relationship with the US seems to have reverted to its cold-war type. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, many European leaders felt US security leadership was no longer so necessary. Hundreds of thousands of US troops could leave NATO bases; a united Europe would handle more of its own geopolitical affairs.

But Europe has merely squabbled over what to do in ex-Yugoslavia. The cliche "fiddling while Rome burns" has been invoked by more than one US official. As it did during the cold war, the US has taken the lead, nudging and cajoling NATO nations toward tougher action than the Europeans themselves can agree on.

A byproduct of this back-and-forth is that the US and its allies have only sketchily discussed what their responsiblities would be if a Bosnian peace plan actually takes hold. "The issue of what international presence is needed hasn't really been thought through," says David Shorr, deputy director of BASIC, a European security information service.

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It may need to be thought through soon. On Sunday, Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, reluctantly agreed to an international peace plan at last-ditch talks held outside of Athens. The Bosnian Serbs were the last holdouts to the plan, with both Muslims and Croats having signed it earlier.

Mr. Karadzic said his signature would not count if the self-styled parliament of Bosnian Serbs rejects the plan this week. But intense pressure has been building for Bosnian Serbs to agree to stop fighting. Economic sanctions are beginning to take effect in rump Yugoslavia, Karadzic's main ally. And the threat of US military action, theoretical for so long, has suddenly become real, with President Clinton vowing to take stronger action to end the Balkans civil war. Britain backs airstrikes

At press time, it was not clear whether Karadzic's agreement would stave off US air strikes. Vice President Al Gore Jr. said yesterday on "Meet the Press": "We can hope that this is a breakthrough, but again, all we've seen is a signature. We have not seen real change." Thus military action still appears to be on the table.

Britain is ready to support a US policy of airstrikes against targets in the former Yugoslavia if the Bosnian Serbs try to back out of the peace deal signed Sunday. The British government is also willing to endorse the creation of safe havens for Muslims in Bosnia and to help protect them.

But British support for air strikes will be made heavily conditional on the Clinton administration spelling out in advance clear political objectives for the policy.

Prime Minister John Major also stressed that a final decision on whether to back airstrikes and commit British airplanes to the attack will have to wait until Wednesday, when the Bosnian Serbs' self-styled parliament is due to vote on whether to endorse the peace plan.

Lord Owen, the peace plan co-author, said he felt the threat of air strikes wasn't the deciding factor in Karadzic's interim agreement. "Threats from outside if anything stiffen their resistance," he said after a negotiating session in Athens.

The key pressure, Owen held, was that applied by Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb leader of what remains of the Yugoslav nation. Owen claimed that Mr. Milosevic had finally cut back logistic support for Bosnian Serb fighters, who were beginning to feel the pinch in spare parts and fuel.

The Vance-Owen plan would split Bosnia into semi-autonomous provinces, each one dominated by a particular ethnic group. The Bosnian Serbs have resisted signing because the plan calls for them to give back about 40 percent of the territory they have already taken by force. In addition, Serb-dominated provinces would not be connected to Serbia itself - a situation that Karadzic has warned will simply lead to continued fighting.

In trying to force the Bosnian Serbs to abide by the peace plan, the key disagreement between the US and its European allies is over whether to arm Bosnia's Muslims. Support for arms embargo

Prime Minister Major has firmly ruled out British backing for any move to relax the embargo against arming Bosnia's Muslims. A similar position on arming the Muslims was likely to be adopted by France, London officials said.

The British policy position was adopted after weeks of debate in which Cabinet ministers unanimously opposed arming the Muslims. A majority, according to Cabinet sources, reluctantly agreed to endorse air strikes against Serb supply lines if Clinton decided that was necessary. Creating safe areas for Muslim obtained a similar amount of support, the sources said, although some ministers are worried that this would require more British troops to be sent to Bosnia.

Much of the opposition to air strikes has come from Defense Minister Malcolm Rifkind. Military officials have told him that air power alone would have little effect on the ground, except to disrupt deliveries of food and other aid. Mr. Rifkind's arguments were similar to those used by Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But Major overruled Rifkind and other opponents of air attacks when it became clear that a majority of the Cabinet endorsed the policy, however reluctantly. Before making his decision, Major consulted Owen, the European Community peace negotiator, who has spoken out in favor of surgical strikes against Serb supply routes.

One British Cabinet minister said yesterday that deciding between air attacks and arming the Muslims was "a choice between two evils."

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