The Sarajevo Bombing: US torn over response to 'cowardly act'

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - Bill Clinton yesterday conferred with his top national security advisers on the carnage in Sarajevo. But for all the outrage, and a flood of official warnings that 'every option is open', including air strikes, the United States still seems reluctant to deepen its involvement in the search for a settlement.

The mortar attack which killed 68 civilians - and for which the Serbs are assumed to be responsible - has produced demands for punitive Nato air strikes from Republicans and Democrats, as well as an impassioned Baroness Thatcher, and an end to the arms embargo on the Muslims.

But amid deep differences among the Western allies, there is still no sign of a strategy within the administration for ending the war. At the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, an almost equal concern is to prevent another open rift between the US and its partners.

The new US Defense Secretary, William Perry, said air strikes against Bosnian Serb emplacements could be launched very quickly. 'The question is not whether we are capable of air strikes but of what happens afterwards. If air strikes are Act One of a new melodrama, what will be Act Two and Act Three?'

That problem has yet to be answered by Washington. 'We rule nothing out,' Mr Clinton said. But the White House stressed that an 'urgent investigation' must first establish who had carried out this 'cowardly act'. The immediate US response has been humanitarian: the dispatch of medical teams to Sarajevo to evacuate some of the 200 wounded.

The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, began consultations with the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and other Nato partners. But familiar obstacles remain. Mr Perry said the US would not carry out air strikes alone; yet the administration knows that Britain and Canada, with thousands of peace-keeping troops on the ground, worry that air strikes would trigger Serbian reprisals against their forces.

It is also, however, aware that another round of idle warnings to the Serbs - what Lady Thatcher derided on ABC television as 'soft words and empty threats' - would reduce Western credibility to zero. 'This is a time for decisions,' she said, dismissing fears of an escalation of the war. 'Give the Bosnians the means to defend themselves.'

Complicating matters further are doubts that air strikes against the Serbian guns above Sarajevo would destroy the targets. Lawrence Eagleburger, a former secretary of state, instead advocated attacks on military targets in Serbia.