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US contemplates military options: Washington talks to its allies about how to punish Serbia, but rules out direct use of American armed might

SHOCKED by the harrowing attacks on Srebrenica and the de facto collapse of the Vance-Owen peace plan for Bosnia, the United States yesterday was consulting its European allies over possible military moves to punish Serbia, including air attacks on Serbian artillery. But despite the outrage here, Washington remains opposed to arguably the only recourse which might stop the war - direct and massive use of US armed might.

Hitherto, the White House has stuck to the line that tighter sanctions against Belgrade are the next step, assuming Serbia failed to agree by 26 April to the peace plan drawn up by the UN and EC negotiators. But with the Serbs on the verge of battering Srebrenica into submission, that public position was changing yesterday.

'We're looking at a number of options,' a sombre President Bill Clinton said yesterday before a meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa. But once again Mr Clinton indicated the US was awaiting 'a consensus among the allies' and again flatly ruled out the dispatch of American ground forces, something, that 'we've never considered'. As a first reprisal, the White House spokesman, George Stephanopoulos, said the US would support a UN resolution imposing heavy sanctions against Serbia at once. It would be 'intolerable for us to stand aside' in the event of Srebrenica's fall, the Secretary of State Warren Christopher told Russian officials yesterday, an implicit warning that Bosnia's plight was now taking precedence over the desire not to upset President Yeltsin before his 25 April referendum.

Even beforehand, however, the adminisatration's frustration was tangible. In a television interview yesterday, Al Gore, the Vice-President, explicitly blamed European reluctance for the inability of the West to halt the bloodshed. The US had been pressing its allies to deal with this 'awful tragedy'. But, Mr Gore went on, 'the fact of the matter is that because it's in Europe, it's very difficult for the US to go it alone if our allies are not willing to join with us'.

Such is the mood of officials in the adminstration. But agreement on what might be done has been conspicuous by its absence. Yesterday, a State Department humanitarian team urged militarily protected safe zones for Bosnian Muslims and the use of 'robust' military or diplomatic means to silence Serbian guns. Within hours, however, Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, had ruled out US participation in creating the safe havens.

The 'other options' which Washington is pressing on its Nato partners are the familiar ones of lifting the international embargo on arms deliveries to Bosnia, and bombing strikes on Serbian gun emplacements and supply routes - as advocated by Lord Owen yesterday.

For Mr Clinton, the crisis in former Yugoslavia is becoming a key test of his moral leadership of the Western democracies and of the willingness, proclaimed in his inaugural address, to use 'force when necessary . . . when the will and conscience of the international community is defied'.