The United States and its allies, declaring the time of “empty threats” was past, warned Friday they would carry out sustained and widespread bombing of Bosnian Serbian targets if the eastern Muslim enclave of Gorazde is threatened.
At the end of a 16-nation conference, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said that, if the airstrikes become necessary, they will go ahead over Russian objections and despite any threat by the Bosnian Serbs to take U.N. peacekeepers hostage.
Senior U.S. officials also said that raids would be conducted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization even if opposed by U.N. envoy Yasushi Akashi, who often has been reluctant to order airstrikes in response to Bosnian Serb provocations.
The conference also agreed to use the new Rapid Reaction Force in Bosnia, composed of British, French and Dutch troops, to punch open secure supply routes to Sarajevo so that the city’s besieged population can be assured of adequate food and medicine, now in short supply.
Russian officials attending the conference publicly rejected the plan for airstrikes, which the United Stated pushed through after winning the backing of its key allies, Britain and France. The Russians also opposed use of the Rapid Reaction Force to open supply routes. But Christopher said the Russians did not have a veto.
Bosnian Serb spokesman Misha Gavrilovic, interviewed on British television, implicitly threatened that hostages would be taken in response to the Western decision. He said the countries with peacekeeping troops in Bosnia “cannot expect that their troops on the ground will be treated as anything but combatants.”
In Sarajevo, Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic gave the Western plan a hostile and skeptical reaction. “Another half-measure, another consensus, another collective fig leaf,” he said. “They always produce halfmeasures instead of saying enough is enough.”
In Washington, President Clinton said he was “encouraged” by the conference result. But Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Bob Dole, were highly critical, with Dole calling the outcome of the meeting “another dazzling display of ducking the problem.”
The disagreement between Clinton and the Republicans presages a bitter fight next week when Dole plans to introduce a plan to lift unilaterally the U.N.-imposed embargo on arms to the Bosnian government. Clinton strongly opposes the plan.
Western leaders here put a robust interpretation on their decisions. They warned that Bosnian Serb leaders would “pay an extremely heavy price,” in Christopher’s words, if they ignored the warning and said the leaders would be held individually responsible for their actions.
They said a private warning was being communicated to the Bosnian Serb leaders that would leave them in no doubt about the seriousness of the Western threat.
Christopher and Defense Department officials said there would be no more “pinprick” airstrikes against Bosnian Serb positions. They declined, even in private, to spell out their plan of air attack but said it would not be limited to the Goradzde area. The plan was believed to call for massive strikes on Bosnian Serb radar positions, ammunition dumps and other facilities.
The Western nations have a formidable air arm to back up their threat, including 140 combat aircraft based in Italy and a large number of other U.S. and British planes on aircraft carriers in the Adriatic.
NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes told the conference, according to European diplomats, that Bosnian Serb tanks were moving toward Gorazde and that the West might have to decide within days, not weeks, on punitive airstrikes.
While the conference warning was limited to threats of attack against Gorazde, Christopher said the procedures for air retaliation can be “promptly applied” to other UN safe havens that come under threat. “We stand ready to do so,” he said. As he spoke, Serb forces were attacking the safe haven of Bihac in the northwest.
In Belgrade, Milosevic’s govern ment, which has been in conflict with the Bosnian Serbs, urged them not to attack Gorazde and said the war could only be resolved through political means.
The London conference was called by British Prime Minister John Major after the Bosnian Serbs captured the safe haven of Srebrenica last week. They have since brought another enclave, Zepa, close to surrender.
Major and other Western officials concluded that, if Gorazde also fell, the United Nations Protection Force would have to be withdrawn. With all the Western nations, and even Russia, in agreement that the UNPROFOR mission must be sustained and strengthened, the Western leaders decided they had to draw a line.
“We cannot afford any more empty threats,” Christopher said.
The United States led the move for airstrikes, and won over Britain and France despite initial reluctance. The French pushed a plan to send troop reinforcements to Gorazde by helicopter, but the United States and Britain had the plan shelved.
The plan for airstrikes calls for decisions to be made by the United Nations commander on the ground in Bosnia, British Gen. Rupert Smith, and the NATO air commander. Presumably this means U.S. Adm. Leighton Smith, the NATO commander for Southern Europe.
Previously requests for airstrikes that came from the ground commander had to be approved by Akashi, the UN envoy. He rarely gave his assent, and then only for pinprick strikes that caused the Bosnian Serbs no serious difficulties.
Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the new arrangement was “a step forward” and would ensure that airstrikes “could be carried out promptly.”
xxxx PROTECTING BOSNIA Key points from the 16-nation meeting on Bosnia: Political aims. The meeting underlined the urgency and importance of obtaining a political settlement in Bosnia. Use of force. The meeting decided that any attack on the U.N.-protected area of Gorazde would be met with “substantial and decisive response.” U.N. Protection Force. The meeting decided that steps will be taken to reinforce or resupply the U.N. peacekeepers including by use of the Rapid Reaction Force.