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WEST STEPS UP PRESSURE ON SERBS

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The West stepped up pressure Monday on rebel Serbs holding nearly 370 peacekeepers hostage, sending thousands more troops toward Bosnia and trying to salvage the confused U.N. mission.

European Union foreign ministers assembled in Brussels to debate the next step, the United States dispatched 2,000 Marines to the region and the United Nations promised new suggestions to revamp the mission.Isolated and desperate, the Serbs showed no signs of releasing hostages until they get promises there will be no more military action like the NATO air raids against Serb ammunition dumps on Thursday and Friday.

Frustrated U.N. officials pleaded for instructions from a world community vacillating between outrage over the Serbs' defiance and reluctance to be sucked into the Balkan carnage.

"A lot of thought will have to go into our next step, because it will probably be the most important step the international community makes in this century," said U.N. spokesman Alexander Ivanko.

At the EU meeting Monday, France sought backing for a tougher peacekeeping mandate.

"Either we find credible means to reinforce" the U.N. force in Bosnia, "or the withdrawal will have to take place," Jacques Andreani, French ambassador to the United States, told Cable News Network on Monday. France, with 3,800 peacekeepers, has the largest contingent.

U.N. chief Boutros Boutros-Ghali will present new proposals on the Bosnian peacekeeping mission to the Security Council by Monday night or Tuesday morning, said Yasushi Akashi, the senior U.N. official for the former Yugoslavia.

Britain, with 3,300 soldiers, said it would start sending more troops to Bosnia on Tuesday to reinforce the U.N. force. About 1,200 soldiers would be sent within three weeks, and 5,000 more were placed on alert for possible duty.

Britain's deployment came after Serbs captured 33 British peacekeepers Sunday near the Muslim enclave of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia. The British Defense Ministry warned the Serbs of "very severe consequences" if captives are harmed.

Meanwhile, 2,000 Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., were being transferred from exercises on the Italian island of Sardinia to the Adriatic Sea, where the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt also was headed, said Lt. Col. Michael Wood of the U.S. Army.

"They were in the theater anyway, but we moved them to this station purely as a precautionary measure. No decision has been made yet to send them into combat," Anthony Lake, President Clinton's national security adviser, said in Washington on Monday.

The German daily Die Welt reported, without naming sources, that Britain, France, the United States and Canada were preparing commando raids to rescue seized peacekeepers.

The new deployments by Western powers also would positionthem for an evacuation of the U.N. peacekeepers.

Western officials spoke also of redeploying peacekeepers in Bosnia in larger groups so they could defend themselves.

"I believe one has to consider concentrating them on more secure positions and creating further possibilities for robust intervention and reaction," German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said in a radio interview.

Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, en route to The Hague for a meeting Monday night with his U.S., British, French and German counterparts, issued Moscow's strongest condemnation yet of the treatment of U.N. peace-keepers.

"Russia can no longer tolerate barbarity as regards to peacekeepers in Bosnia," Kozyrev said. But he also said NATO air raids do nothing but aggravate the situation. Russia is a traditional ally of the Serbs.

NATO foreign ministers meet Tuesday in the Netherlands.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke said in Budapest on Monday that "the failure to respond to the (Balkan) crisis at the outset is the greatest collective failure of the West since the 1930s."

The possibility that Serbs would take lightly armed U.N. peacekeepers hostage had prevented the United Nations from asking NATO to intervene against the Serbs for months.

When NATO did carry out its first air strikes since November on Thursday and Friday, the Serbs' response was swift and brutal.

Serbs shelled the northern city of Tuzla and other areas nominally under U.N. protection, killing 76 civilians. And they quickly seized peacekeepers, chaining some to ammunition stores and other potential targets of NATO air strikes.

By nightfall Sunday, the Bosnian Serbs were holding 367 peacekeepers hostage, said Ivanko, the U.N. spokesman. Among the worst off were 22 French peacekeepers who took refuge from the Serbs in three armored personnel carriers just north of Sarajevo on Sunday, said Lt. Col. Gary Coward, another U.N. spokesman. It was not known if they had any water or food.

They shot at NATO planes Sunday and lobbed shells into Tuzla, decapitating one man and wounding two.

By Monday morning, the Serbs had five light U.N. tanks and 15 armored personnel vehicles in their hands, Coward said. More than 200 Serb heavy weapons were on the loose around the city after U.N. collection points for such arms ceased to exist.

Elsewhere, 900 shells rocked an area near a northern corridor linking Serb-held areas in Bosnia and Croatia with Serbia proper. Coward attributed the shelling to fighting between Bosnian Croats and Serbs.

Bosnia's foreign minister, Irfan Ljubijankic, died Sunday when a missile shot down his helicopter near Bihac in northwestern Bosnia, Bosnian and U.N. officials said.

The helicopter crashed on territory held by Croatian Serbs just west of the Bosnian-Croatian border, said U.N. spokesman Maj. William Taylor. Croatian Serb forces claimed responsibility.