In an unprecedented effort to reduce the vulnerability of United Nations peacekeepers, Western defense chiefs agreed Saturday to form a 4,000-troop, multinational quick-reaction force for the former Yugoslav federation and accepted an American offer of substantial air and logistics support.
The strike force, composed primarily of soldiers from France and Britain, will be under direct operational control of the commander of the U.N. force in all the former Yugoslav republics, French Gen. Bernard Janvier. Its members will wear their own national uniforms but fly a U.N. flag.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry said the United States “strongly supports the objectives” of the force, although it would not provide any ground troops for it.
Meanwhile, Clinton, who said Wednesday he would use U.S. ground troops for a “reconfiguration and a strengthening ” of U.N. forces in Bosnia, used his radio address Saturday to qualify that commitment.
He said U.S. ground forces would be used “as a last resort” for “an emergency extraction” of U.N. forces in a “highly unlikely” operation of “limited, temporary” duration - and only after consultation with Congress.
The United States has agreed to provide close-air support, including AC-130 gunships flown by Americans, as well as a strategic airlift of forces and equipment into the theater of operations.
In addition, Perry said, the United States will transfer or loan attack helicopters, communications gear and night-vision equipment, and help set up an intelligence coordination unit for the new force.
The quick-reaction force, which French officials said could be operating within a month, is a first for the United Nations, which has been criticized sharply by France and Britain for not giving peacekeepers in Bosnia the means, or the rules of engagement, necessary to protect themselves.
It will give Janvier, the U.N. commander, and Gen. Rupert Smith, the British general who heads the U.N. forces assigned to Bosnia-Herzegovina, greater authority and firepower to protect their troops.
And, as envisioned by the 15 defense ministers meeting in Paris, the commanders would be able to call on the force without going through the United Nations’ civilian chain of command.
Asked if the force might be used to rescue hostages still held by Bosnian Serbs, French Defense Minister Charles Millon responded sharply: “This is not a warfare operation. This is a peacekeeping operation.”
Rather, the defense ministers said they hoped U.N. commanders would use the force to make U.N. troops less vulnerable to attacks and hostage takings.
The creation of the new force seems to resolve, for now at least, the European diplomatic crisis that arose when Bosnian Serbs took several hundred U.N. troops hostage. Many of those soldiers were French or British, the two countries with the most troops in the 22,000-member U.N. Protection Force.
Freed hours earlier from Bosnian Serb captivity, more than 120 U.N. peacekeepers headed for their regional headquarters Saturday, but negotiations to release more than 250 other hostages ran into trouble, officials said.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, once a patron of the Bosnian Serbs, issued a statement in Belgrade announcing all hostages would be freed soon. He earlier forced the release of the first group, saying the Serbian separatists, who are headquartered in the Bosnian village of Pale, had responded to his pressure.
Jovan Zametica, a spokesman for Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, said the first group was liberated as a gesture of goodwill. He also dismissed Milosevic’s role in the negotiations: “Serbia is not in charge of releasing the prisoners,” he said.
Even as the first group of peacekeeper hostages rode to freedom on Friday, 16 Frenchmen were taken hostage, and on Saturday 12 Dutch peacekeepers had to fight their way out of the Bosnian “safe area” of Srebrenica under attack by Bosnian Serbs.