Clinton's Stance on Bosnia Jabbed by Congress, Serbs

US fails in talks with Bosnian Serbs and tries to keep arms embargo

THE Clinton administration is scrambling to avert a return of full-scale war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and to prevent the Republican-controlled Congress from repudiating its foreign policy.

The urgency comes from mounting breaches in Bosnia of the four-month truce brokered by former President Jimmy Carter in December and the latest failure by the ''contract group'' of US, Russian, and European mediators to win Bosnian Serb acceptance of a six-month-old peace plan.

''There is no movement here,'' said the US representative to the contact group, Charles Thomas, after talks ended in Sarajevo.

The collapse of the talks represents a serious miscalculation by the Clinton administration. It had gambled that it could advance the peace process by speaking directly with the Bosnian Serbs. In doing so, it disregarded a UN-declared ban on such contacts and its own assurance to the Bosnian government that it would refrain from direct talks until the Bosnian Serbs opened supply routes to Sarajevo.

''Assuming the Serbs abide by the cessation of hostilities agreement and allow the Blue Routes [UN aid convoy routes] to operate, my government believes that our representative Ambassador Thomas should continue the dialogue with [Bosnian Serb leaders],'' Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in a Jan. 18 letter to Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic. A copy of the letter was obtained by the Monitor.

The administration, meanwhile, faces bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for a bill to require the United States to unilaterally end a United Nations arms embargo and sell weapons to the Muslim-led Bosnian government unless the Bosnian Serbs sign the contact group plan by May 1.

The contract group's plan offers 49 percent of Bosnia to the Bosnian Serbs, who have captured 70 percent of the country since mid-1992 with the backing of Serbia. Bosnia's Muslim-Croat federation, which would be given 51 percent, has approved the plan. But the government says it will wait only two more months for Serbs to accept it.

The White House opposes the bill sponsored by Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas. It argues that lifting the embargo will trigger Bosnian Serb offensives and seriously damage ties with Britain, France, and Russia. All three say they will withdraw their troops from Bosnia if the embargo is lifted.

Senator Dole had agreed to withhold his bill to give the cease-fire and contact-group negotiations a chance. But with both now in jeopardy, Dole may move his measure.

Senior administration officials are intensively lobbying to defeat the bill. They have been aided by British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd and his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, who went to Capitol Hill to argue against the measure during separate visits this month.

The British government is pursuing the lobbying effort by bringing Lt. Gen. Michael Rose to Washington this week. He just completed a controversial one-year tour as UN commander in Bosnia and is a vocal opponent of ending the arms embargo.

General Rose asked for meetings today with key GOP senators, including Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina; Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana; and Strom Thurmon (R) of South Carolina, sources say. He declined to seek any time with Dole. The sources say Senator Helms, signaling his continued support for Dole's bill, declined Rose's request.

Yesterday, Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic was in Washington to lobby on behalf of Dole's measure. After meetings with Vice President Al Gore Jr. and Mr. Christopher, he was to see Dole and Helms, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. Mr. Siladjzic contends that the UN arms embargo violates his country's right to self-defense and prevents it from countering the Bosnian Serbs' massive advantage in Serbia-supplied heavy weaponry. Christopher last week urged the House International Relati ons Committee to reject Silajdzic's appeals.

President Clinton is almost certain to veto the Dole bill if it passes. Even so, its approval would represent a symbolic Republican victory and the most humiliating repudiation yet by Congress of Clinton's handling of Bosnia.

In his letter to Izetbegovic, Christopher confirmed that he knew that Bosnian government officials were worried by direct talks with Pale, location of the Bosnian Serb headquarters.

''While I respect these concerns, I believe that the cessation of hostilities provides a new climate and a possible opportunity to renew the negotiations which we should not allow to pass by,'' he said, referring to the Carter-brokered cease-fire that began Jan. 1.

*David Rohde contributed to this report from Zagreb, Croatia.

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