LONDON — THE nations working to ease the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina are hoping to achieve momentum toward a political settlement by throwing their earlier diplomatic priorities into reverse.
Malcolm Rifkind, Britain's defense secretary, spelled out on Tuesday what he called a "determined new strategy" amid criticism that the new policy of creating "safe havens" for Bosnian Muslims allows the Bosnian Serbs to consolidate territorial conquests.
The safe-haven strategy was hammered out in Washington over the weekend by the US, Russia, Britain, France, and Spain.
Mr. Rifkind, speaking at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels this week, appeared to be reflecting the views of most NATO governments when he argued that the allies' initial idea of first achieving a political settlement based on the Vance-Owen peace plan for Bosnia, and then proceeding to a cease-fire, had proved unworkable and that a new line of approach was needed.
"We are now determined to obtain a cease-fire first and build on that to get a long-term political solution," he said.
Key elements in the new approach are the deployment of troops to protect safe areas for Muslims, a further tightening of sanctions against Serbia, and new steps to prevent fighting spreading to other parts of the Balkans.
Although NATO endorses the main lines of the cease-fire-before-settlement approach, sharp differences between the allies at the Brussels meeting were never far beneath the surface.
France, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United States supported the strategy. But Volker Ruhe, German defense minister, complained that the revised plan "legitimizes Serbian gains." More complaints
"The expulsion of Bosnian Muslims must not be allowed to last, and must not be sanctioned by drawing new frontiers," he said.
Fabio Fabbri, Italy's defense minister, complained that most European governments had not been consulted before the new plan was adopted.
There were doubts whether Lord David Owen, the European Community peace mediator for former Yugoslavia, would continue for much longer in that role. A source close to Lord Owen said he had been dismayed by new arrangements which "paid only lip service to the Vance-Owen plan."
The allied strategy switch has evoked widespread condemnation among supporters of the Bosnian Muslim cause. Zaki Badawi, a leading Muslim spokesman in Britain, accused European governments of "failing in their moral duty" to the Bosnian Muslims. He said responsibility for "betraying" them lay not with the Clinton administration, but with the EC.
"The Europeans are in the process of turning the Bosnian Muslims into refugees in their own country," he said. "Like the Palestinians, the young people will be frustrated because they lack opportunities. They will be forced into taking action."
Dr. Badawi, principal of the Muslim College in London, said the new NATO plan "makes `ethnic cleansing' respectable" and sets a dangerous precedent.
In an apparent attempt to underline the determined character of the revised strategy in Bosnia, Britain, along with Turkey and the Netherlands, has offered to provide warplanes to police the six Muslim safe areas, including Sarajevo, proposed under the Washington agreement.
France is spearheading moves at the United Nations to obtain Security Council backing for a policy of using force to protect Muslims in the designated areas. But at the UN, a statement by 51 Islamic nations said that the Washington plan "appears to accept the status quo imposed by the use of force and ethnic cleansing." `Early stage'
A British government source conceded that the new strategy was at an "early stage." There was debate, the source said, over how many troops would be needed to implement it. The British view is that some 40,000 troops in UN blue berets would be required. But Rifkind has ruled out any increase in the size of the 2500-strong British force in Bosnia.
Owen, who embarked on a series of meetings with EC governments when the new allied strategy was decided, is being urged to stay on as EC mediator. Douglas Hurd, Britain's foreign secretary, says the Vance-Owen plan and the safe haven approach "can be brought together, over time."
He has received support for this view from Cedric Thornberry, deputy head of the UN peace force in former Yugoslavia, who said, "There is a need to get ceasefires, and then begin to make political moves based on a more stable situation."
He added that once a "political dynamic on the ground" is introduced into peace moves, "all kinds of things become possible" as the parties to the conflict "become less rigid." He forecast a "bit by bit, step by step" approach.
British government insistence that the revised strategy is justifiable has drawn severe criticism from the opposition Labour Party. George Robertson, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, called it "pathetically weak."