The United States and its Western allies agreed Friday to move warships and helicopters into the Adriatic Sea to increase pressure on Serbia, in the first Western military action to cope with Europe's worst crisis since the end of the Cold War.
The decision to begin "naval surveillance" along the coastline of what was once Yugoslavia resulted from an Italian proposal adopted by the Western European Union, the security arm of the European Community.
The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization quickly joined the decision, and U.S. officials said that Navy ships are already on their way into the Adriatic.
European and U.S. officials acknowledged that the naval operation is only a limited, initial step. The multinational fleet will be authorized only to "monitor" ships carrying cargo for Serbia and its ally Montenegro to see whether they are carrying weapons or fuel in violation of United Nations sanctions, not to stop or search them.
But the step has a wider significance because it could lead to more intrusive measures later and because it marked the first time that the allies--led by Italy and other European countries, not the United States--have intervened, even if haltingly, in the Continent's brush-fire ethnic conflicts.
"Yugoslavia . . . is a test (for) devising instruments to meet our goal not just to prevent conflicts, but to settle them," Italian Foreign Minister Vincenzo Scotti said. "This is extremely important, because this is the starting point.
"Faced with the Yugoslav situation," Scotti said, "Europe had to give a response as Europe and do it in coordination with the Atlantic Alliance."
The Western European Union and NATO made their decisions at a summit meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) that was designed to approve plans for preventing future, hypothetical conflicts in Europe but that quickly found itself overtaken by events.
The naval operation, which drew promises of participation from at least five countries, including the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy, was aimed at increasing the effectiveness of U.N. sanctions that prohibit shipment of most goods except food and medicine to Serbia and Montenegro, the two remaining members of the Yugoslav federation.
The Western European Union said its naval force of five or six warships will be accompanied by naval patrol aircraft and helicopters, supplemented by a larger NATO force.
Yugoslavia's newly designated prime minister, Southern California businessman Milan Panic, made a surprise visit to Helsinki on Friday and appealed to Secretary of State James A. Baker III for support and understanding.
"I want peace," Panic declared later at a press conference notable for his display of fervor and vigor. "We discussed the need for Yugoslavia to satisfy the U.N. resolutions, and I assured him that I will do everything to do that."
But Baker said he is skeptical that Panic can keep his promises to stop the fighting.
"The world now demands deeds from Yugoslavia, not just words," Baker told reporters after his 45-minute meeting with Panic. "We've heard words before."
Panic told Baker that he has a plan to bring peace to the Balkans, beginning with a round of talks with the leaders of the region's warring states and ethnic factions.
But U.S. officials said they believe that real power in Serbia still rests in the hands of the country's aggressively nationalistic president, Slobodan Milosevic.
"They may roll over him," Baker said of Panic. "He's been a pretty successful and effective businessman, and yet I don't think he's done a lot of political work."
Told of Baker's doubts at his press conference, Panic responded with an expression he has used before: "Mr. Milosevic has his job and I have mine. God help him if he gets in my way.
"I may be the little mouse that breaks the camel's back," he added.
But when asked if he could control the ethnic Serbian militias in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina that have been attacking local Muslims, he replied: "This is an independent country. I don't think I can control anybody."
Panic said he told Baker that he plans to achieve peace by launching a new round of negotiations, and he began by meeting with Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, who was in Helsinki for the CSCE summit. As the next step, he said, "I will go to Sarajevo," the besieged Bosnian capital.
Panic, however, refused to provide any further specifics of his plans to bring peace to Yugoslavia and its former republics.
The joint naval operation was short on specifics as well. "The military authorities have to get together and decide exactly how big the operation ought to be, what it ought to encompass and what the rules of engagement are," Baker said. "Then they'll determine what kind of forces are needed."
NATO's decision to join the operation originally proposed for the Western European Union's forces papered over a potential division between the two organizations, one of them--the WEU--composed only of European countries and the other including the United States and Canada.
The newly created Adriatic naval monitoring effort may turn into an actual blockade if the U.N. Security Council approves such action, delegates at the summit conference here said.
The only section of the Adriatic coastline still left in what remains of Yugoslavia is the 80-mile stretch in Montenegro from just south of Dubrovnik, in Croatia, south to the Albanian border. Most of the coast is in Croatia, with short sections in Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, all former Yugoslav republics.
The Western European Union also said it has decided to begin organizing for overland convoys to carry relief supplies to Sarajevo and other besieged cities in Bosnia--an undertaking the United States has decided not to join.
The organization said it would also consult NATO on whether the two defense groups should provide military air cover for U.N. humanitarian convoys in Bosnia or other former states of Yugoslavia.
President Bush, in an interview taped for the PBS "MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour" before he left Helsinki for the United States, said his thinking on the issue has been governed by a reluctance "to get bogged down in a kind of warfare, like . . . guerrilla warfare."
As late as midday Friday, Bush insisted to reporters that he had made "no new decisions since being here on deployment of new naval forces," although other officials said the basic decision had already been made.
The Defense Department said the cruiser Biddle and the amphibious ship Iwo Jima, which carries 1,700 combat-equipped Marines, were in the Adriatic Sea to provide communications for U.S. humanitarian aid flights to Sarajevo.
British Prime Minister John Major said the Royal Navy frigate Avenger would be assigned to the Adriatic task force.
But European leaders shared Bush's skittishness about committing ground troops to peacekeeping forces in the war-torn former Yugoslav republics.
Major said Britain felt that, in the event of military action around Sarajevo, there would be "the difficulty of getting in; and once in, the difficulty of being effective; and the acute difficulty of getting out."
French President Francois Mitterrand said his country is willing to deploy troops to protect U.N. convoys in the Balkans--but not in a combat role.
"We do not contemplate sending troops for combat on the ground," Mitterrand told a press conference. "We are contemplating sending troops to ensure the protection of human relief efforts."
And Germany, which has opposed Serbian aggression, said it would study ways to participate in NATO or Western European Union actions, although the Bonn government also maintains that its postwar constitution prohibits it from military operations outside NATO's defense borders.
The debate and drama in response to the Balkans crisis overshadowed the planned business at the two-day European summit.
Fifty-one leaders of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a loose organization that includes all European nations, the former Soviet republics and the United States and Canada, adopted a 76-page document spelling out its transformation from a talking forum on human rights to a regional organization capable of taking firm actions. Yugoslavia, the 52nd member, has been suspended.
The group, their leaders agreed, can make use of facilities from NATO, the Western European Union or the European Community to supervise cease-fires, monitor troop withdrawals and assist refugees.
The government heads also signed conventional arms control agreements setting limits for both armaments and troop strengths for 36 countries--the members of NATO, the old Warsaw Pact and the former republics of the Soviet Union.
And they established a high commissioner to protect Europe's minorities; the official's job will be to iron out ethnic and nationalistic quarrels before they erupt in bloodshed.
The summit's final declaration also provides for a Forum for Security Cooperation in Vienna to take over arms control talks from NATO and the defunct Warsaw Pact.
But the attention of European leaders was far more focused on moves to force the Serbians to end their apparent effort to take over Bosnia.
Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin told his fellow leaders: "Russia acutely recognizes the danger of aggressive nationalism which is now replacing the ideological confrontation of the past.
"An epidemic of this disease could spin out of control and quickly grip an enormous number of people and entire states."
Yeltsin called rising nationalism the "plague of the 21st Century."
He threw his weight behind the creation of a European quick-reaction force that he said should be employed in a timely way to stop fighting.
Yeltsin, who has preferred that the Commonwealth of Independent States attempt to sort out differences among the former Soviet republics, was satisfied to see the conference drop its plans at the last minute to send unarmed observers to Nagorno-Karabakh.
LEADER IN ARREARS: Milan Panic is being sued for defaulting on a loan. D1