The United States and its allies appear to be moving reluctantly toward an outcome in Bosnia-Herzegovina that would leave the Serbs in control of territory they have seized and deploy U.N. troops to guard "protected areas" for the remaining Muslims, U.S. officials and allied diplomats said Wednesday.
The Clinton Administration is unenthusiastic about the idea, but Britain, France and other countries with troops already in Bosnia are hammering out a plan that could put as many as 75,000 U.N. troops on the ground to protect Muslims in six cities from further Serbian and Croatian attacks.
Both U.S. and European diplomats worry that the effect would be to grant the Serbs long-term control over territory they have taken through violence and terror against civilians.
"There is a risk that the whole thing will peter out with the situation on the ground frozen," said a U.N. official who has been involved in the peace negotiations. "That is the Muslims' worst fear."
But the Europeans say the havens would be designed only as an interim measure, to help stop the fighting and save lives while the West continues to press for a settlement that would include withdrawal by the Serbs from some of the lands they have seized during the 14-month-long war. The Serbs have conquered and "ethnically cleansed" 70% of the republic.
"There must be a political process" to lead to a peace agreement, British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said. "But we also want to build up the idea of safe havens, safe areas."
Hurd, who is on his way to Washington to discuss Bosnia with Administration officials, said he hopes to win U.S. support for the havens and indicated that he will discuss the use of American air power.
Hurd said he does not expect the United States to contribute troops to the protection force, and indicated that the Europeans are willing to go ahead without American participation on the ground.
While U.S. officials have privately criticized the haven idea, they have not definitively rejected it, diplomats said.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher said he will seek common ground on the Bosnian conflict in separate meetings with Hurd, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev over the next five days.
A Christopher aide said the secretary of state still hopes to persuade the allies to agree to President Clinton's preferred course of arming the Bosnian Muslims.
But without a consensus in favor of that approach, Christopher and other officials say the United States has shifted from trying to roll back Serbian gains toward simply containing the conflict.
State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said the Administration is moving forward with several measures: a U.N. resolution to put observers on the border between Serbia and Bosnia; a possible deployment of U.S. troops to beef up a deterrent force in Serbia's southern neighbor, Macedonia, and a resolution to set up a war crimes tribunal.
He said the border force, designed to determine whether Serbia is fulfilling a promise to stop the flow of military supplies to the Bosnian Serbs, would not include U.S. troops.
Allied diplomats said the idea of the protected areas would be to deploy a larger peacekeeping force, enforce a cease-fire and insist that Serbian forces withdraw beyond artillery range of the cities they have been shelling.
They said the havens would be established around the capital of Sarajevo and five other towns that are Muslim enclaves surrounded by Serbian forces: Srebrenica, Tuzla, Zepa, Gorazde and Bihac. The Muslim sector of Mostar, which has been under attack by Croatian forces, might also be included, they said.