In what may be the turning point in the Balkans war, wave after wave of American and European warplanes bombed Bosnian Serb positions Wednesday, the largest military operation in NATO history.
After three years of being bullied and humiliated, NATO unleashed its big guns on the recalcitrant Bosnian Serbs. The latest air strikes bore scant resemblance to the symbolic bombings in the past of rusty old tanks and empty depots - so-called “pinpricks” that earned the combined forces of the United Nations and NATO widespread disdain in Bosnia.
The new action was tantamount to a full-scale declaration of war by NATO against the Bosnian Serbs.
U.S., French, British and Dutch jets, flying in darkness from air bases in Italy and from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Adriatic Sea, attacked targets near Sarajevo, the government-held towns of Tuzla, Mostar and Gorazde and the rebel Serb headquarters village of Pale, where a French plane was shot down. It was the largest air operation in Europe since World War II.
The planes first targeted Serb anti-aircraft missile batteries and radar systems in pre-dawn raids, NATO officials said, then staged daylight strikes against communications systems, command and control centers and ammunition dumps. About 60 jets had made six bombing runs by sundown; taking part were not only allied fighter jets but also an array of radar-jamming planes and electronic warfare aircraft to confuse air defenses.
As part of a coordinated assault, the multinational Rapid Reaction Force on Mount Igman outside Sarajevo fired more than 600 shells on Serb positions around the Bosnian capital in a pre-dawn barrage, hitting a “very important” ammunition depot southwest of the city, according to a U.N. spokesman.
The Bosnian Serb leadership responded defiantly, shelling Sarajevo and issuing angry condemnations of NATO. But in a sign that U.S.-brokered peace negotiations still may be possible, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic announced in Belgrade that he would head a joint delegation including the Bosnian Serbs in future settlement talks.
A French-piloted Mirage 2000C fighter plane was shot down near Pale, just east of Sarajevo. Television from Serb-held Bosnia showed the jet falling in flames to the ground. There was no word on the fate of the two airmen from the fighter, who reportedly parachuted.
Military analyst Michael Clarke in London likened the scope of the mission to the allied campaign to liberate Kuwait from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 1991.
As the beleaguered residents of Sarajevo cheered and allied aircraft buzzed overhead, NATO and U.N. officials vowed to continue punishing the nationalist Serbs until they no longer threaten the Bosnian capital and other civilian enclaves.
“The world has finally done what it should have done a long, long time ago,” Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic said.
However, the airstrikes might do more for NATO and the United Nations than they do for the beleaguered people of Bosnia. After downing Spokane pilot Scott O’Grady’s F-16 in May and repeated hostage-takings of U.N. peacekeepers - to name just a few of the indignities to which the Bosnian Serbs have subjected the West - these pre-eminent institutions needed to prove they could stand up to warlords like Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
As for the ever-elusive peace in Bosnia, nobody with any experience dealing with the volatile Bosnian Serbs is predicting that these latest airstrikes will make them more malleable in negotiations.
Milos Vasic, editor of Vreme, Belgrade’s most respected independent publication, said Wednesday that the Bosnian Serbs are just as likely to seek new means to retaliate as to talk.
“You have got to remember, you’re dealing with psychopaths,” Vasic said. “Nobody in the leadership of the Bosnian Serbs is a professional politician and you can’t expect them to react in the way that a professional politician would.”
Andrew Duncan, a London analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the airstrikes could derail the peace mission by Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, who was meeting Wednesday with Milosevic in Belgrade.
“It may convince the Serbs they have to talk, in which case everybody will say we should have done it two years ago,” he said. “But more likely, it could drive them further into a corner from which they’ll lash out, and everybody will say ‘I told you so.”’
The immediate trigger for the air strikes was the shelling Monday of a crowd outside the Sarajevo central market, in which 37 people were killed. It was one of the worst shelling incidents of the war, although not as egregious as the storming in July of the U.N. “safe havens” of Srebrenica and Zepa, in which thousands of Bosnian Muslims are feared to have been murdered.
This time, it appeared that the United Nations and NATO had put in place the groundwork for punitive action against the Bosnian Serbs, and the market shelling provided the appropriate justification.
For the last week, the United Nations had been withdrawing its remaining peacekeepers from Gorazde, a “safe haven” where they were vulnerable to Bosnian Serb attack. That left only 400 U.N. troops stationed in Bosnian Serb territory, and since they happened to be Russians, and Russia is a traditional supporter of the Serbs, it seemed unlikely that they would be taken hostage.
Holbrooke said Sunday, the day before the market shelling, that the Bosnian Serbs were the major obstacle to negotiations and warned: “If this peace initiative does not get moving, dramatically moving … the consequences will be very adverse to the Serbian goals.”
Perhaps mindful of the prospective NATO attack, the Bosnian Serb assembly late Tuesday indicated it would be receptive to Holbrooke’s invitation to negotiate.
But the concessions were not deemed entirely credible - given Karadzic’s habit of continual speeches about peace as he directs the ruthless bombing of civilians.
This time, the Bosnian Serbs were not to elude punishment as they had on so many occasions in the past. By 2 a.m. Wednesday, NATO planes were buzzing the hills around Sarajevo, bombing artillery positions in the Bosnian Serb capital of Pale and other strategic installations.
“This is something that they were itching to do, to conduct a Desert Storm against the Bosnian Serbs with air power. … Both NATO and the U.N. were looking for an opportunity to re-establish credibility,” said analyst Clarke of the Center for Defense Studies in London.
“There is an element of desperation in our strategy, but our credibility was at rock bottom anyway. In a sense, we and the Western powers have maneuvered ourselves into a very risky, end-of-the-line action,” Clarke continued.
The airstrikes were all directed against military and communications facilities near Sarajevo, Tuzla and Gorazde. They are three of the cities that the United Nations established as “safe havens” in 1993, but have previously failed to protect.
In particular, the NATO operation is intent on resurrecting another failed U.N. policy - a ban of heavy weapons in a 12-mile radius of Sarajevo.
Graphic: NATO airstrikes over Bosnia
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A turning point in Bosnia NATO’s attacks on Bosnian Serb positions may have marked a turning point in the 41-month war in Bosnia. Here are questions and answers addressing what they mean and how they change the situation on the ground. Q. How do the NATO attacks differ from previous NATO air strikes against the Serbs? A. In the past, NATO has used pinprick strikes to knock out a single tank, for instance, pockmark an airstrip or blow up part of an ammunition dump. In doing so, NATO opted to send the Serbs a political message rather than inflict casualties or serious damage. Wednesday’s attacks targeted extensive military assets with the aim of hitting the Serbs where it hurts and reducing their military capability. It also marked the most aggressive United Nations attack yet against Serbs. Among the targets: Serb troops in the field, Serb artillery and mortar positions, command and communications posts, ammunition dumps and surface-to-air missile batteries. Q. What are the risks of Serb counterattacks against civilians and U.N. peacekeepers? A. The threat remains, but it’s sharply reduced from several weeks ago. Most U.N. peacekeepers have been pulled back from exposed areas into better-defended positions. Further, the rapid reaction force (roughly 12,000 crack combat troops) gives the U.N. peacekeepers a local 911 number to call. Q. Does this draw the United States closer toward deploying ground troops in Bosnia? A. Not necessarily. There remain two circumstances under which U.S. troops would be deployed in Bosnia. The first would be as part of a larger NATO combat force that would be used to help evacuate United Nations peacekeepers, should they be pulled out this fall. The second would be as part of a larger international force that would help police a peace agreement. That remains a long way off. Q. Does Wednesday’s strike advance or retard the peace process? A. It could do either, but the White House is betting it will advance the process by helping to convince the Serbs that they have little to gain, and much to lose, by continuing to resist the U.S.-brokered peace plan. - Cox News Service