DAVID USBORNE New York
France accused the United States yesterday of covertly supplying arms to Bosnia's Muslim-led government in defiance of a United Nations embargo. A senior French military officer, clearly speaking with his government's approval, said at a briefing in Paris that the US had also sent former generals and reserve officers to advise the Muslim-led forces on their war effort.
"The Bosnians now have new uniforms and M16 rifles, and we supposedly don't know where they have come from," the French officer said.
"The problem today is that the United States backs military action by the [Muslim] Bosnians, whereas we [Europeans] are neutral,'' he added. ''If the Europeans are on one side and the Americans on the other, it would be like an earthquake in the Atlantic alliance."
The US has consistently denied offering covert aid to the Bosnian government, even though such action might well meet with the approval of many in Congress who would like to see an official lifting of the UN arms embargo against the Muslims.
A US official refused yesterday to respond explicitly to the allegations from Paris. "Right now, we don't have any comment," an official at the US mission to the UN in New York.
A State Department source said similar charges had been made in the past and always denied. "These kind of things have come up before, and obviously we have dismissed them," the source said. "We're not supplying arms to anybody and we work through our Nato allies on anything like this."
The French accusation underlined the continuing divisions over Bosnia between the US and its European allies, notably France and Britain. The US believes the Europeans' neutrality in the war has had the effect of consolidating Bosnian Serb gains, while the Europeans have faulted the US for advocating support for the Muslims without regard to the possibility that this could spark a wider Balkan war.
Also, the US has been privately fuming over reports that the release by the Bosnian Serbs of the UN hostages captured at the end of May was prompted in part by secret negotiations by France with the Serbian commanders.
It has been clear for a long time that the Bosnian government is acquiring weapons from abroad, but the suppliers have never been identified. Experts believe the Bosnian forces may be receiving some arms from Islamic countries, channelled through Croatia, which has unusually warm relations with Iran, among other states.
The Bosnian forces are also thought to be buying equipment on the international arms market with funds put up by friendly governments. In recent months there have been many rumours but no direct proof of secret US arms deliveries.
The US stopped participating last year in the enforcement of the UN embargo, but the Clinton administration has parried efforts in Congress to provide open military aid to the Bosnian government. If President Bill Clinton had decided to set up a clandestine arms pipeline to Bosnia, he would have been obliged by law to inform senior congressional leaders.
There has been much less secrecy about the role played by US military advisers in Bosnia. They have contributed to the increasingly impressive performance of the Muslim-led forces on the battlefield.
The Bosnian government, meanwhile, said yesterday it wanted nothing more to do with Yasushi Akashi, the special UN envoy to former Yugoslavia, who is reviled in Sarajevo as an appeaser of the Serbs. "We do not speak to Akashi any more. Akashi is dead for us," said Hasan Muratovic, a government minister.
His remarks underlined the growing crisis facing the UN operation in Bosnia, which has failed to prevent the Bosnian Serbs from cutting the aid lifeline to Sarajevo and forcing the collapse of the heavy weapons exclusion zone around the capital.