US reluctant to lead the way against Serbs

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THE United States called yesterday for a 'war crimes' investigation of reported atrocities by Serbian forces in Bosnia, and for the tightening of international sanctions against Serbia to make them 'as devastating as possible'.

But, despite confusing signals over the last few days, the US government remains opposed to large-scale military intervention in Bosnia, either by the US alone or through the United Nations.

President Bush said yesterday, in an interview with USA Today, that military options had not been ruled 'in or out'. He implied, however, that any US military action would involve, at most, support for UN relief efforts. Anything more, he said, was 'an option I haven't thought of yet . . . I don't see the answers to my questions in terms of the use of substantial American force'.

US officials said the administration still believed external military action could only deepen the bloodshed. The aircraft carrier Saratoga, ordered into the Adriatic to show Washington's concern about the Bosnian fighting two weeks ago, returned to the Mediterranean yesterday.

But pressure for tougher action is growing. The Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, said yesterday that the US 'may have to use military force - I would begin with air power - against the Serbs to restore the basic conditions of humanity'. Earlier, he accused the administration of repeating the mistakes made during the Holocaust, when the West 'remained silent and paralysed in the face of genocide'.

In the face of such domestic criticism, the State Department called a special news conference to announce that Washington would seek a fresh UN Security Council resolution on the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Deputy Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, said reports of systematic detention, torture and killing of ethnic minorities by Serbian forces were 'profoundly disturbing'. The US draft resolution would call on all nations and organisations to 'collect substantiated information on war crimes'.

Bush administration policy seems to be as much driven by the imperatives of US public opinion and the presidential election campaign as events in Bosnia. The statement amounted to a second reversal of US policy in two days - in tone, if not in substance.

Having said on Monday it had its 'own reports' of abuses, torture and killings 'in Serbian concentration camps', the State Department back-tracked on Tuesday, saying it had 'no independent confirmation' of the reports. A senior State Department official told the Washington Post, off the record, that the administration had been alarmed at the upsurge of public anger in the US following its initial statement. Its third bite at the apple yesterday, calling for war crimes investigations, was a response to the criticism of its position by Mr Clinton and Democrats in Congress.