HOPES are rising of building a consensus between the European Community and the United States on the best approach to the crisis in the former Yugoslavia in time for a weekend conference in Geneva. The Jan. 2-3 meeting would be the first between leaders of all the warring factions in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
France and - less enthusiastically - Britain appeared to be moving toward backing the US policy of using military air strikes against Serbian positions to enforce the United Nations-backed "no fly" zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina. The US has espoused such a position should the fighting show signs of spreading into neighboring Kosovo or Macedonia.
London and Paris officials, however, continued to warn President Bush that precipitate use of force against Serbian positions could trigger counter-attacks on British and French troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They could also threaten the UN-sponsored humanitarian aid program which those forces are protecting and ruin hopes of a negotiated settlement, the sources said.
One British diplomat called the meeting in Geneva "extremely important in the search for a negotiated settlement. Nothing should be done to jeopardize those contacts."
The Geneva agenda prepared by UN and EC officials included discussion of constitutional proposals for the future government of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The fruit of weeks of effort by Cyrus Vance, the UN mediator, and Britain's Lord Owen, his EC counterpart, the proposals envision a republic divided into largely autonomous provinces under a central government.
Aligning US and EC policies on the best way to head off the likely spread of the conflict has involved a vigorous and determined effort by the Bush administration. Britain and France together have some 5,000 troops committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina; the US has none. In talks with President Bush before Christmas, Prime Minister John Major urged the US to delay enforcing the no-fly zone in Bosnia until mid-January at least. US Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, however, publicly advocated giving the Serbs a 15-d ay ultimatum, which would put the deadline early in January.
Serbian irregulars launched attacks on British armored vehicles in two separate incidents Dec. 26-27. Until then, the French and British standpoints were closely aligned, but on Dec. 28 France said it agreed that it might be necessary to launch attacks on Serbian airfields, a move that Cheney supports and Major has been resisting.
On Dec. 29, British sources said London's position had not changed, but they declined to criticize President Bush for writing a letter to Serbia's newly re-elected president, Slobodan Milosevic, threatening military action against Serbia if the Balkan conflict spread to the province of Kosovo, where tensions have been rising between Serbs and the majority Albanian community.
London's argument about the vulnerability of its forces appeared to have been eroded by US media reports from Bosnia-Herzegovina suggesting that British troops deployed there were not as defenseless as Major has been saying.
A report in the Washington Post quoted a British Army spokesman as saying: "We don't feel so vulnerable. We could give the Serbs a nasty headache if we wanted."
Hopes that the hard-line US policy was having the desired effect on the Serbs rose Dec. 29 when Yugoslav federal president Dobrica Cosic, on his return from talks in Geneva, said there was a "real possibility" of foreign military intervention in the Bosnian war.
The greatest hopes for peace, however, had been pinned on the federal premier, Milan Panic, a Serbian-born American businessman, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote the Yugoslav parliament Dec. 29.
On Dec. 28 there was a further sign of a possible softening of the Serbian position when Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic wrote to Major urging him to make every effort to "cool the temperature" over the no-fly zone question.
Mr. Karadzic offered to let UN monitors accompany Serbian aircraft which, he claimed, were involved only in humanitarian flights over Bosnia-Herzegovina. His letter was interpreted in London as an indication that the Serbs were increasingly worried about the prospect of effective enforcement of the no-fly zone, particularly the likelihood of attacks on airfields in Serbia.
Karadzic's letter arrived in London as Bosnian Muslim forces prepared to attack Serbian positions in and around Sarajevo in an apparent attempt to break the siege of the city.