U.S. officials said Tuesday that the Clinton administration is prepared to offer military equipment and logistical support to reinforce United Nations forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
They left open the possibility that Washington would contribute troops for a limited mission to help regroup and move the U.N. force into safer, more fortified positions.
The comments - carrying the strongest suggestion of a broader U.S. role in Bosnia to date - came as the United States and European powers began examining the military actions that would be necessary to strengthen the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia, which numbers 22,500.
The moves come after NATO air strikes against Bosnian Serb ammunition depots last week, which, in turn, led to the seizure of more than 320 U.N. soliders as hostages by Bosnian Serbs.
For more than two years, the Clinton administration has limited its military role in Bosnia to participation in NATO airstrikes and air drops of food, medicine and clothing.
The White House has talked about the use of U.S. troops in only two circumstances: to help a withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers from Bosnia or to enforce a peace agreement reached by the warring parties.
Tuesday, White House spokesman Michael McCurry said the United States is prepared “to provide a variety of resources and materiel” to the U.N. forces. He added, “It’s a little premature at this point to suggest that those requests will be forthcoming.”
Asked repeatedly whether the president might consider a limited use of U.S. troops to rescue members of the U.N. force or help draw them back into larger, easier-todefend contingents, he declined to speculate on what form any assistance might take.
“We’ve said that we will be there, we will be there to respond,” McCurry said, referring to NATO contingency plans to help the U.N. forces.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Kenneth Bacon also declined to rule out the use of U.S. troops if they are asked to help with a redeployment of U.N. forces. “If we are asked to help NATO, we will consider those requests,” he said.
With military planners assessing options for strengthening the forces, Defense Secretary William Perry said Tuesday that the United States would be willing to send military equipment such as armored personnel carriers, helicopters and night vision equipment to the U.N. force.
Still, with an U.S. aircraft carrier and ships carrying 2,000 U.S. Marines near Bosnia, officials played down the likelihood of a commando action to free the U.N. soldiers being held hostage by the Bosnian Serbs.
Moreover, in an appearance Tuesday night on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, when asked what role the 2,000 Marines might have, Perry said, “They could be part of an extraction operation, if the U.N. called for assistance to extract the U.N. from some part of the country.”
Asked if this could lead to U.S. ground forces in Bosnia, the defense secretary said: “No, except for one contingency: where we send our forces in as part of NATO to extract U.N. forces in danger. It would be a NATO operation under NATO command. We’d go to Congress for support before we did it.”
The standoff in Bosnia reached a new crisis point last week after the United Nations, under heavy pressure from the United States to get tough on the Serbs, authorized NATO air strikes against Bosnian Serb ammunition depots.
But the move backfired as the Serbs, rather than agreeing to meet several international ultimatums, fired the deadliest single shell of the war - killing 71 people in the town of Tuzla - and took hundreds of U.N. soldiers hostage.
In the aftermath of the hostage taking, Clinton administration officials continued to press its allies to keep the U.N. force in Bosnia under more robust rules of engagement.
Friday, Secretary of State Warren Christopher consulted in a three-way telephone converation with German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel and British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, supporting the continuation of a United Nations presence in Bosnia, according to administration officials.
He also consulted with French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette and with Secretary General Willy Claes of NATO.
Saturday, President Clinton spoke with with Prime Minister John Major of Britain and President Jacques Chirac France, saying the United States would do what it could to help a strengthened redeployment.
U.S. officials said he mentioned logistical support, military equipment and a contribution to peacekeeping bills. But the French and British did not indicate at that time that they favored a strengthened force.
European officials said that decision came Sunday when Chirac called Major and the two leaders, facing domestic political pressures, decided it was up to the British and French to look after their own people.
The two leaders unilaterally decided to bolster their forces, the Europeans said. And early Tuesday morning, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Russia resolved at an emergency meeting in The Hague to expand the size of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia and to pull the forces into major towns and fortified camps.
A senior United States official cautioned, however, that the president had made no decisions on any spefcific operations in the Balkans and called the movement of the marines a “precautionary measure, a prudent measure, given what’s going on on the ground.”
Campaigning in New Hampshire for the Republican nomination for president, Senate majority leader Bob Dole agreed that U.S. troops could be used under limited circumstances. “Under certain conditions, yes, to help rescue personnel but not to rescue equipment,” Dole said.
Clinton, who has made no public comments on Bosnia in four days, is expected to speak on the latest crisis Wednesday during an address at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.