The message of Thursday’s airstrike on a Bosnian Serb ammunition dump was supposed to be clear. No more fooling around.
NATO jets blasted targets near the Bosnian Serb headquarters of Pale on Thursday, making good on the United Nations threat to call in air strikes if artillery and sniper attacks on civilians in Sarajevo did not cease at once.
But like uncounted earlier messages, this signal, delivered by 10 fighters from the United States, Spain, Holland and France, was rejected.
The response of the Bosnian Serbs was the military version of an obscene gesture. They promptly retaliated with a deadly artillery barrage against Tuzla and Gorazde, two so-called “safe areas” in Eastern Bosnia, and defiantly raided three U.N. weapons compounds.
As many as 70 people were killed in Tuzla, the Associated Press reported.
That angry answer appeared to set the stage for more air attacks and a continuation of the confused violence that has torn Bosnia for years.
“This is a slap in the face of the United Nations and the international community, and the Serbs will have to suffer the consequences,” U.N. spokesman Alexander Ivanko told the Associated Press after the Tuzla attack. “There is only one option available … and that is to use air power.”
Thursday’s attacks also advanced the question of what to do about the apparent ineffectiveness of the U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia. The European countries providing those troops have been talking with increasing intensity in recent weeks about a possible withdrawal.
Gen. John Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday he had sensed that European frustration with the continuing violence had reached the point “where people are saying enough is enough.”
“I think there’s a frustration by nations contributing to (the U.N. protection force) and probably the community in general that such a conflict should not go on forever,” he told reporters at the Pentagon, “that there’s (been) enough violence.” Thursday’s attack came after the Bosnian Serbs failed to meet a U.N. ultimatum that they cease shelling Sarajevo and return heavy weapons seized from the U.N. It was NATO’s first attack on the area of Pale.
The strike was necessary, experts said, to show both sides in the Bosnian civil war that the U.N. was serious in its efforts to maintain order even though NATO is putting the final touches on a contingency plan for a possible withdrawal.
If the U.N. forces do come out, the United States could be called on to provide combat troops to provide cover for the retreat.
It was the seventh time that NATO warplanes had retaliated against the Bosnian Serbs since NATO’s Operation Deny Flight began enforcing a Bosnian no-fly zone April 12, 1993.
Most often the targets have been small and the attacks modest and careful. But the strike on Pale was designed to be stronger - with its target and in its location.
There seemed to be some ques tion, however, about how effective the attack had been. The explosion that resulted did not seem to be large, though one retired military source said that might be because it was a small-arms depot. Shalikashvili said he did not know if the attack had been a success.
But the selection of a target in the vicinity of Pale, the Bosnian Serb unofficial capital, may have been even more important.
“The location is important in the sense that theoretically it goes to the center of gravity of the government,” said Ilana Kass, professor of military strategy at the National War College here. “It’s like bombing a capital city … It is an implicit threat to their leadership.”
“It is surprising, because it’s more gutsy than anything so far,” she said. “I would submit … symbolically, it’s a different phase in the ball game.”
Still, sending messages with warplanes may be a fruitless task - as it was in Vietnam. “You hit. You stop. You wait for a political reaction,” Kass said. “You’ve basically ceded the initiative to the other guy.
“This (strike) is clearly more than before. The question is: Is more enough? And what do you do for an encore? You get into what you got into in Vietnam.”
The question becomes not only is the message getting through, but is the other side paying attention.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Thursday that, for the United States, the message seemed loud and clear.
“The message is that it’s time to stop fighting and start negotiating for peace. There is a peace plan that exists that we think makes sense and is a good road map for the future. And that’s the message. It’s an unmistakable message.”
But Kass said neither side in Bosnia so far seemed tuned in.
“The nice outcome would be that the Serbs would say, ‘Oh, gee, time to give up,’ and the Moslems would say, ‘Oh, gee, time to negotiate.’ But none of the combatants, in my view, believe that they can achieve their objectives at the negotiating table.
“The problem is that, so far, both sides feel they can achieve better outcomes on the battlefield.”
MEMO: A portion of the paragraph beginning with “If they hit…” was cut from the published text. This cut text is contained within brackets.