US Gears Up for Airstrikes

As NATO meets today, Washington quietly rules out unilateral action in Bosnia BYPeter Grier, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE United States is rattling its weaponry and urging tough action as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) governing council meets today to review plans for air attacks against Bosnian Serbs.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher contacted all 15 allied foreign ministers over the weekend after a pointed meeting with NATO military planners at a US air base in Italy. The activity was intended to counter what the US sees as European hesitation to follow through on threats of armed intervention on behalf of besieged Bosnian Muslims (Bosnia and the European Community, Page 3).

This time the Clinton administration does not want to be accused of too much deference to allied concerns - a charge leveled the last time military moves were actively considered, in April. Still, it appears that unilateral US action is not a live option.

"For better or worse, I think we're in this together," noted influential Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a weekend television interview.

Today's meeting of the NATO governing body, the North Atlantic Council, is intended to review military planning for proposed airstrikes, as well as judge political progress of peace negotiations in Geneva. At press time, final approval of airstrikes was not on the meeting's agenda.

Proposed targets will be under consideration, as well as a command-and-control structure for any attacks.

Allies have been urging that any bombing be limited to tit-for-tat retaliation against assaults on UN peacekeepers or humanitarian aid deliveries.

US officials have been promoting a broader list, saying strikes on Serb supply lines, command centers, and concentrations of artillery may be necessary if the seige of Sarajevo is not lifted.

Some US allies, notably Canada, Britain, and France, worry that their troops serving as United Nations (UN) peacekeepers would come under Serb attack if NATO bombs fall. Inevitably, humanitarian efforts to feed civilians would then end, they say.

Bowing to this concern, the US has agreed that no airstrikes will occur without clearance from UN ground commanders.

But US officials portray this as something less than a concession. They say that as a practical matter, UN troops would have to be notified of any attack, and would work closely with NATO forward air controllers on the ground.

If nothing else, the debate over force in Bosnia has focused attention on how lightly armed the UN peacekeepers really are. In the face of determined opposition they seem as much hostages as a mediating force.

"The UN forces need to be beefed up," said Senator Nunn over the weekend.

Last week, US officials were promoting attacks as inevitable if Serbs did not pull back. The continued confusion over exactly when attacks might occur, or if they will occur at all, appears to have muddied the political message US officials have been trying to send to Bosnian Serbs, Muslims, and Croats.

In short, the Serbs may have read too little into the US-NATO threat, while the Muslims may have read too much.

On Thursday, in the face of US sword-rattling, Bosnian Serbs promised they would withdraw their forces from two key mountain positions over Sarajevo and open two routes for civilian aid convoys. Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic said the access routes would be opened today.

But as of this writing it appeared Serbs were in fact strengthening their hold on the crucial peaks, Bjelasnica and Igman.

The Bosnian Serb's own news agency reported that a withdrawal of heavy guns from the area really was under way. UN officials denied this. They said that among other things Serbs were continuing to shell Muslim government forces from Mt. Bjelasnica.

Even if some heavy weapons are withdrawn that does not mean the Serbs are keeping their promises, according to the UN. "What we are seeing is that the Bosnian Serbs are consolidating up there," said UN spokesman Barry Frewer over the weekend.

For their part, the Muslims may believe the US is about to come riding to their rescue in a military conflict that so far has tilted to the Serbs.

After the prospect of airstrikes was raised again by the US last week, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic suddenly appeared much less interested in peace negotiations under way in Geneva. He has continued to refuse to participate in the roundtable discussions, saying he is protesting Serb aggression against Bjelasnica and Igman.

Some US officials have said that no airstrikes would in fact be carried out if Mr. Izetbegovic refuses to engage in serious negotiation. Others have denied that US policy contains any such linkage.

Meanwhile, UN peacekeepers already in place in the former Yugoslavia were voicing doubts about the whole US approach. Some say that the Clinton administration's tough talk is designed not so much to save Sarajevo as to mollify US public opinion, or satisfy complaints from Islamic nations that the West won't intervene to save Muslims.

After all, Secretary of State Christopher did take a swing through the Middle East last week with an aim to reenergize that region's peace negotiations. The administration's tough talk on Bosnia could only help its position with Arab nations in the region.

"If you use the airstrike, I'm sure that an immediate result would be the ending of the airlift to Sarajevo," British Brig. Gen. Vere Hayes, UN chief of Staff in Bosnia, told the Reuters news agency on Aug. 7.

Serb forces around Sarajevo still have at their disposal an estimated 600 heavy weapons. They include everything from tanks to howitzers, mortars, and large-caliber machine guns.

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