When Bosnian Serb rebels blew an American F-16 out of the sky with an old-fashioned SA-6 missile 11 days ago, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic told a visiting U.S. diplomat he was “shocked” and offered to help recover the pilot, U.S. officials said.
But American experts, former senior U.N. officials, and the Muslimled Bosnian government say evidence suggests that Milosevic’s support and army made it possible for the Bosnian Serbs to shoot down the plane.
There is little doubt that the order launching the two SAMs came from Gen. Ratko Mladic, officials said. Milosevic’s role is more subtle and comes from his ties to Bosnian Serb military commander Mladic, a frequent visitor to Belgrade. Other close links include those between Milosevic’s Yugoslav army and Mladic’s officer corps, the continuing support for Mladic from Belgrade, and the integrated nature of the military’s air defense system.
Milosevic is currently feuding with Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, a political rival who, unlike Mladic, is no longer welcome in Belgrade, U.S. officials say. “Inasmuch as Mladic is in bed with Milosevic, it is understood that (Milosevic) would know,” said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “And knowledge is responsibility.”
A Western military official, who asked not to be identified, said, “I always felt Milosevic was finding ways to support them. It was a shell” to pretend he had cut off ties. If Milosevic wanted, he also could intervene and probably block such a shoot-down.
Officials at NATO’s Southern Command in Naples, Italy, would not comment on Milosevic’s role. But Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Ryan told reporters in Aviano, Italy, Friday that the integrated air defense system the Bosnian Serbs use is the system inherited from a united Yugoslavia.
According to Susan Woodward, a former adviser to Yasushi Akashi, the top U.N. official in the Balkans, the Bosnian Serb air defense system including the highly mobile truckmounted SA-6 is fully integrated with that of neighboring Serbia. “It is one system,” she said. U.S. defense experts say the Belgrade High Command would have tracked the movement of the aircraft and the movement of the surface-to-air missile sites and monitored the launch.