US pledges helicopters but keeps its distance

WHITE HOUSE; 'Either we fix Unprofor or we have to pull out'
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Secretary of State Warren Christopher yesterday confirmed the US would be ready to provide logistical support - perhaps in the form of helicopters - to strengthen United Nations' protection of surviving Bosnian Muslim "safe zones", as awareness grew here that whatever happens, direct US military involvement in the crisis is now bound to increase.

But even that relatively modest move to bolster the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) could founder in a Congress deeply hostile to exposing American pilots to Serbian fire, and ever more bent on lifting the arms embargo and thus terminating a UN presence which legislators deem more hindrance than help to the Muslim cause.

Mr Christopher's words came after France made known it had asked the US to provide 200 helicopters to ferry French troops from their positions in southern Bosnia to defend the enclave of Goradze, the likely next target of the Bosnian Serbs after the probable fall of Zepa.

While refusing to be drawn into specifics which he said were the province of last night's meeting of US, British and French military chiefs in London, Mr Christopher said the dispatch of American equipment was "certainly a possibility''. He again criticised any move to lift the embargo unilaterally as a "grave mistake'' that would give the US a "unilateral responsibility" for a wider and bloodier conflict.

But behind the sparring lies a common realisation that the West's military and diplomatic strategy towards Bosnia has reached what the Defense Secretary, William Perry, yesterday called a "defining moment''. The status quo could not continue, he told ABC Television.

"Either we fix Unprofor, or it isn't fixed and we have to pull out,'' he said. ''If this strengthening fails and if we don't have the will to take the necessary action, then the UN will pull out." If that happened, Mr Perry repeated that US ground troops would be employed to help extricate the peace-keeping force.

Mr Perry said he believed that the combination of a Rapid Reaction Force of 12,000 men (with whose deployment the US could assist), the 22,000- strong UN force already in Bosnia and "really vigorous" use of Nato air power would be enough to keep the Serbs in check, without the commitment of American ground troops.

In the event, however, of this approach failing, the US is committed to provide up to 25,000 ground troops, as part of an overall force of up to 80,000 men, to withdraw the peace-keepers. The Senate majority leader, Bob Dole, the most ardent advocate of a UN pullout and lifting the embargo, told ABC he would back the commitment of US forces, albeit grudgingly, to safeguard the peace-keepers, provided they were allowed to retaliate massively against any attacks by the Bosnian Serbs.

This week, and perhaps as early as tomorrow night, Mr Dole is due to bring legislation unilaterally ending the embargo on to the Senate floor. Such is the mood in Congress that it could muster the two-thirds support required to override the certain veto from Bill Clinton. Many senior Democrats now back Mr Dole rather than the President on the issue.