THE final go-ahead for United Nations-backed airstrikes in Bosnia-Herzegovina will be ordered by Monday, Aug. 9, at the latest, according to highly placed defense sources in London and Brussels.
The decision is expected to be made at a meeting of the NATO council in the Belgian capital and will authorize United States, British, and French aircraft to carry out missions in Bosnian airspace.
At a 12-hour technical meeting in Brussels that began on Aug. 2 and ended early on Aug. 3, alliance officials approved a twin-track strategy, the sources say.
Under the first part of the strategy, allied aircraft will be authorized to carry out sorties aimed at defending UN ground forces if the forces come under attack from Serb or other units.
In addition, allied aircraft may be asked to create, by aerial bombing and air-to-ground rocket attacks, a cordon sanitaire, or buffer zone, around the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. This would be aimed at breaking the Bosian Serb siege, allowing aid convoys to pass through, and keeping the zone clear of hostile forces.
The cordon sanitaire option remains controversial. US officials, alarmed by the occupation by Serb forces of high ground around the city, advocate the plan. But Britain and France, which have peacekeeping troops on the ground, continue to insist that the second track of the strategy be approved by the UN Security Council, where they both have veto power.
Canadian officials at the Aug. 2 meeting were most nervous at the prospect of full-scale airstrikes, but backed the majority, an alliance diplomat says.
The likelihood of early air operations over Bosnia was heavily underscored Aug. 3 when Malcolm Rifkind, the British defense secretary, landed by helicopter aboard the British aircraft carrier Invincible in the Adriatic and told Royal Air Force Sear Harrier pilots to prepare for action.
His remarks coincided with a fresh warning to Bosnian Serbs by Douglas Hurd, Britain's foreign secretary, that unless they stopped "strangling Sarajevo" and "sabotaging the peace talks in Geneva," NATO airstrikes would be ordered.
British officials say Mr. Hurd's comments were intended to strengthen the influence of Lord David Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg, the peace mediators at the Geneva talks.
Lord Owen, the negotiator for the EC, yesterday appeared to discount the value of airstrikes, saying they would "have little effect in ending the war."
"The only military solution would be to put in ground troops, and no one is prepared to do that," he said.
Unlike in the past, British and French ministers now accept that air attacks on positions in Bosnia are what London officials yesterday called "actual policy" rather than "mere options."
On Aug. 3, a spokesman for French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur said France was ready to take part in air raids.
The same day a NATO spokesman also said the allies were ready to act. The next few days, he said, would be spent working out suitable ground controls for UN-approved air operations.
The risk involved in NATO airstrikes on ground targets in Bosnia is considerable, according to British defense experts.
Col. Michael Dewar, deputy director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says such operations can go wrong, either through human error or technical malfunction.
"There is, however, now a broad consensus in NATO that air attacks may be needed, and Monday's meeting in Brussels will make the key decisions," he says.
LONDON officials note that Britain and France insist on a right of veto over particular operations because of their experience in the Gulf war when a number of British servicemen were killed by American "friendly fire."
Britain and France are major contributors to the 9,000-strong UN peace force in Bosnia. They both objected to weekend demands by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher that NATO commanders be authorized to make their own decisions about what types of mission to carry out over Bosnia.
"The result," a British official says, "is that we retain the right of approval, via the UN."
A French official in Brussels was quoted yesterday as saying that any UN decision to order airstrikes rests with Gen. Jean Cot, the French commander of the UN force in Bosnia.