President Clinton on Thursday called the Bosnian Serb assembly's rejection of a peace plan a "grave disappointment" and--in a blunt challenge to U.S. allies in Europe--demanded that the international community agree to "act quickly and decisively" against the Serbs.
Clinton, taking a sharp tone, said that he had directed Secretary of State Warren Christopher to continue consultations with Britain, France and other balking coalition partners until they come up with "tougher measures" that would break the stalemate in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Clinton also asserted that the United States would act only with full European participation.
"America has made its position clear and is ready to do its part," Clinton said. "But Europe must be willing to act with us. We must go forward together."
Clinton's response came as Yugoslavia said that it would sever all aid to the Bosnian Serb fighters. If carried out, such an embargo would effectively cut off the fighters' main source of fuel, weapons and ammunition.
The President's comments, during a speech to the Export-Import Bank, were among his strongest language yet on the dilemma and--in a notable twist--were directed as pointedly at European allies as at the Serbs. As his remarks intensified the pressure on both groups, they pushed the new President a step closer to either embarking on military action or on a humiliating retreat.
Since the Administration's announcement Saturday that it is prepared to use force to end the bloodshed, events and diplomatic talks have steadily narrowed Clinton's options.
Unless European leaders turn about and begin to support U.S. proposals, the President will face a choice between acting unilaterally, in the face of opposition from allies and a majority of Americans, or backing down from his stated resolve to end the conflict with military measures.
There were some indications Thursday, however, of shifting attitudes in Europe. Talking to allied officials, Christopher found a more receptive audience than he had before the vote of the Bosnian Serb assembly.
"I feel we are moving toward convergence," a senior Administration official said Thursday evening. "I see this coming together."
Christopher talked by telephone to both British and French officials Thursday. Earlier, Turkish officials gave strong support, and German officials more limited support, to plans for stronger action, U.S. officials said.
If the United States does persuade its allies to take military action, it will not begin immediately. U.S. officials said it is likely that they will ask the United Nations for a resolution supporting further action against the Serbs. But the request will not be made until next week at the earliest.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution Thursday declaring Sarajevo and four Muslim areas U.N.-protected safe areas. The resolution demanded that the Serbs halt all shelling and move their forces back from the towns of Tuzla, Zepa, Gorazde and Bihac.
While the Security Council dispatched little more than a band of observers to enforce its demands, it warned the Serbs that if they fail to comply, the council will consider adopting a new resolution authorizing "any additional measures necessary" to ensure implementation--an apparent threat of future military action.
In a resolution adopted in April, the Security Council already had declared Srebrenica a safe area and sent 220 Canadian peacekeeping troops there to protect it. While the Serbs have enough force to disperse the Canadians easily, they have hesitated to risk further enraging world opinion.
The Security Council also ordered another 50 military observers sent to Bosnia to join the 9,000 peacekeepers on duty there.
In his comments, Clinton said that the vote by the parliament of Bosnian Serb leaders was no more than a stalling maneuver. He said that the leaders' call for a referendum on the peace plan proposed by the United Nations and the European Community "can only be seen as a delaying tactic to further consolidate the gains they have made, because of the enormous advantage they have in heavy artillery."
Clinton said that the vote abrogated the earlier commitment of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to the plan, negotiated by former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and Britain's Lord Owen.
He said that the Serb expansion into 70% of Bosnia's land area violates the principle that borders should not be changed by aggression. The moves also threaten to "widen the conflict and foster instability in other parts of Europe," he said.
"And their savage and cynical 'ethnic cleansing' offends the world's conscience and our standards of behavior," he said.
Karadzic responded to Clinton's remarks by disagreeing that Bosnian Serbs have crossed any borders, suggesting instead that the conflict is civil warfare. "We didn't come from Serbia," he said in an interview broadcast on CNN. "We live here. We are the oldest population here.
"What we ask for is only respect for our rights, for our rights for self-determination."
Administration officials declined to say whether the vote and Clinton's reaction move the country closer to military action. But they acknowledged that the situation has been changed by the Bosnian Serbs' action and asserted their belief that the allies would prove receptive to the new American appeal.
George Stephanopoulos, the White House director of communications, said that the vote "certainly does change things." He said the Administration believes that through talks, "we will get a unified, common front."
The European allies to date have strongly resisted suggestions of lifting the arms embargo in Bosnia on grounds that it could heighten violence and perhaps cause the warfare to spill into other nations. Many have also opposed limited air strikes, contending that could endanger humanitarian relief efforts and provoke retaliation against civilians.
But some analysts said they believe the Europeans might give in to U.S. pressure because, among other reasons, the Europeans would not like the Clinton Administration to turn its back on the problem, leaving them to cope alone with a crisis that already has brought a toll of 150,000 dead or missing. The crisis threatens to set off further waves of emigration.
Christopher plans to return to Washington today to confer with Clinton. Aides said that he may return to Europe later to continue face-to-face consultations.
"The focus now will be solely on what we might do to try to devise more effective action against the Bosnian Serbs," Christopher said at a brief news conference with German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel at his side.
At stops over the last week, British, French, Spanish, Greek and Russian leaders all rebuffed Christopher's effort to line up international support behind military action against the Serbs.
In Bonn, Chancellor Helmut Kohl pledged limited assistance to any American-led military action but said that Germany's constitution limits its military activities.
German officials already have been "as helpful as they could be within the limits of their constitution," Christopher said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin told Christopher that his government supports allied air strikes against Serb military positions and lifting the arms embargo against the Muslim-led Bosnian government. That has been Turkey's position for some time.
In London, Douglas Hogg, Britain's deputy foreign secretary, said that air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs had not been ruled out and that stronger measures might be needed. But he also said that the pressure of the economic sanctions against Serbia now in place should be given a full opportunity to work.
"It's important that we ensure sanctions are turned into an effective blockade," he said.
A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said that "new measures or indications of action" could be expected after consultations with other allies. Those consultations would be completed this week, he said.
Earlier Thursday, Christopher met in Brussels with Cetin, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Manfred Woerner and leaders of the European Community.
"We did not reach any decisions," Christopher said after his talks at EC headquarters. "Nothing was ruled in but nothing was excluded by way of stronger measures."
Richter reported from Washington and Kempster reported from Brussels and Bonn. Times staff writer Stanley Meisler contributed to this report.
* ARMS FOR PEACEKEEPERS: Senators see need to reinforce U.N. units if air raids start. A12
* BELGRADE CUTS AID: Embargo responds to Bosnian Serbs' peace plan rejection. A12