Bosnian Serbs Play Down Loss of Jets, Open Door to Aid
In absence of reprisals, UN resumes delivery of supplies in Bosnia
BELGRADE — BOSNIAN Serbs, under pressure from Russia, are making significant concessions that allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to the besieged areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic announced in Moscow on March 1 his agreement to allow the opening of the airport in the northern Muslim-led government stronghold of Tuzla to UN aid flights, after Russia promised to send observers.
United Nations convoys on March 1 resumed aid deliveries through Bosnian Serb-held areas after a 24-hour suspension prompted by the downing of four Bosnian Serb jets by two US F-16s under NATO command. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Feb. 28 had halted the Sarajevo airlift and 14 convoys routed through Bosnian Serb-held regions to avoid possible reprisals.
UN officials and Western diplomats say the decision to resume the convoys reflects a belief that the Bosnian Serbs have decided not to turn the downings of their aircraft into a crisis that could derail efforts by the United States and Russia to broker a resolution to the 23-month-old conflict.
Speaking after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, Mr. Karadzic said the first aid flight into Tuzla would be Russian.
Russian UN monitors will be stationed at the airport to inspect arriving cargoes to ensure that weapons are not surreptitiously delivered to the city's Bosnian Army forces, Karadzic said.
Karadzic gave no date for the opening of the Tuzla airport. In February, Western governments threatened to use force to open the airport if the Bosnian Serbs refused to allow it.
Tuzla is the hub of the largest Muslim-dominated enclave in Bosnia. It is surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces, and about half of its 800,000 people depend on UN aid. But only a small portion of the necessary supplies has been getting through by road.
It was the second time in two weeks that Russia, a traditional ally of the Serbs, has used its diplomatic offices to give the Bosnian Serbs a face-saving way of bowing before the new Western resolve to use force if necessary in Bosnia.
Moscow's agreement to donate Russian soldiers to a UN contingent monitoring a cease-fire in Sarajevo allowed Karadzic to evade a NATO threat to launch airstrikes against his forces unless they withdrew their heavy artillery from Sarajevo or placed it under UN control by Feb. 20.
The UNHCR also has restarted the aid flights that supply food and medicines to the estimated 380,000 inhabitants of the Bosnian Serb-besieged capital of Sarajevo.
UNHCR officials said the absence of threats to their personnel and UN military assessments of the situation on the ground convinced them that their operations were not in jeopardy.
``We're always concerned about some sort of negative response. But, we've determined that conditions are suitable for us to continue,'' says Lyndall Sachs, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR's Belgrade office.
She says the UNHCR dispatched aid convoys to Tuzla and the eastern enclaves of Srebrenica and Gorazde, where tens of thousands of Muslims have been trapped in Bosnian Serb encirclements.
A Western diplomat noted that aside from an artillery attack on Tuzla in the aftermath of the NATO downings of the Bosnian Serb planes, there had been no reprisals.
And, they pointed out that the Bosnian Serbs had issued only a vague denial that they had lost any aircraft in an apparent bid to play down the incident.
``As long as the Serbs continue to deny it, we will let them deny it. We will not wave a dead fish under their noses and say `It was you, it was you.'
``If it was their planes, they don't want to make an issue out of it,'' he said.
``What matters is the message. And, the message is `You fly, you die. You don't violate the no-fly exclusion zone,' '' the diplomat continued. ``The incident should not and will not be a big deal.''
The downing of the four Bosnian Serb jets marked the first time that NATO jets, based in Aviano, Italy, enforced the 1 1/2 year-old UN resolution establishing an air exclusion zone over Bosnia. It was also the first offensive action in NATO's 44-year history.
NATO and UN officials said the four Bosnian Serb G-4 Super Galebs that were shot down were part of a flight of six that attacked a munitions factory in a Bosnian government-controlled area of Novi Travnik, 40 miles northeast of Sarajevo.
Two US F-16 ``Flying Falcons'' launched air-to-air rockets after the Bosnian Serb pilots had ignored their warnings that they were violating the no-fly zone and should land.
NATO officials said it was believed that all six aircraft had taken off from Banja Luka, a northern city in which the tiny Bosnian Serb air force is based.
The Belgrade-based daily Vecerni Novosti said that the four downed Bosnian Serb aircraft crashed in mountainous terrain about 30 miles south of Banja Luka.
A NATO spokesman, reached in Naples, Italy, said the two surviving aircraft were tracked fleeing west out of Bosnian airspace into Croatia. They then looped north and east and were last monitored heading back toward Banja Luka, he said.