US Airdrops Show Little Sign Of Easing Troubles in Balkans

Defense secretary anticipates a need for some `assessment' phases

AS thousands of Muslim civilians flee Serb attacks in eastern Bosnia, the Clinton administration's laboriously crafted approach to the Balkans crisis appears in danger of unraveling.

On March 3 President Clinton chaired his first National Security Council meeting, with the darkening situation in Bosnia a main topic.

Officials said the meeting had been long planned. But it's clear that the Balkans continues to command an inordinate amount of White House attention, even as the president tries to devote as much time as possible to pushing his economic agenda.

The United States airdrop of supplies to besieged Muslim towns, as of this writing, appeared if anything to be pushing the Bosnian Serb aggressors to greater efforts. Reports from the area claimed Serbs were ambushing refugees who attempted to claim food.

US officials denied in strenuous terms, however, the charge that the airdrops were in any way the cause of the upsurge in the region's fighting. The Serb offensive was long planned, and all the more reason for the airdrop operation to continue, they said.

The idea that airdrops "would somehow occasion more fighting, we think is ludicrous," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

The question now is whether the air supply operation indicates the US is in any way more deeply committed to the defense of embattled Muslims.

Muslim leaders have said they hope that it is; Serbs are trying to head off more US involvement by raising threats about what that might entail.

Thus Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, in what he termed an open letter to the US public, called the US humanitarian effort "ill-advised" and said it could somehow transform the Balkans conflict into a world war.

Mr. Karadzic also made an unsubtle threat of terrorist retaliation in the US. He raised the issue of the World Trade Center bombing, saying it was "testimony to the extraordinary volatility and immediate dangers of direct involvement," according to the New York Times.

Federal investigators are focusing on a call from a purported Serbian group claiming responsibility for the Trade Center bombing. The caller in question knew details of the bomb's location that at the time had not yet been made public.

Against this background, the other pillar of the US Balkans policy, support for a United Nations-based negotiating effort led by mediators Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen, is also shaky.

REPRESENTATIVES from the three Balkans factions - Serbs, Croats, and Muslims - were as of this writing scheduled to meet again in New York on March 4. But little progress has been made on the central issue of the talks: agreement on a map splitting Bosnia into 10 semiautonomous regions.

Serbs want the map to give them more territory. Bosnians don't like the idea of splitting their country into cantons at all.

Bosnia's Muslim leader, President Alija Izetbegovic, may leave New York by the end of the week if no progress is made. Serbian leader Karadzic would likely follow, dooming the talks, at least for the present.

Thus, administration officials by the weekend may be faced with a situation where the negotiations they have backed are nonexistent, and their major humanitarian action, an airdrop, is aimed at people who have been overrun.

If Serbs allow free passage of Muslim civilians out of the eastern area of the country, as they promised March 4, the situation could be somewhat alleviated.

Meanwhile, the US will continue to airdrop food and medical supplies while consulting with the UN and its allies.

"This will likely result in various phases - some phases of airdrops and some phases of assessment," said Secretary of Defense Les Aspin in a statement.

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