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President Orders Air Supply of Besieged Bosnian Civilians

By Barton Gellman
and Julia Preston

The Washington Post

President Clinton Thursday ordered U.S. aircraft to begin parachuting food and medicine to besieged civilians in Bosnia "without regard to ethnic or religious affiliation." The U.N. Security Council, initially cautious about the plan, endorsed it.

The insistence on neutrality, in an airdrop conceived to stop Serb militias from starving Bosnian Muslims, continued a yearlong ambivalence of policy by the United States and the international community.

A senior Defense Department official, briefing a roomful of reporters but insisting on anonymity, said in almost the same breath that the airdrop would be "absolutely even-handed as between Bosnians, Croats and Serbs" and that it was intended to "show that the whole world is ganging up on the miscreants" who use "the denial of food and medicine for purposes of ethnic cleansing."

Only U.S. forces will be involved in the airdrop, at least initially. The Clinton administration sought allies in the endeavor, but diplomats said the United States fended off offers from Turkey, Pakistan and Germany for fear of tainting the operation's neutrality. All three have been aligned against the Serbs.

Following a U.N. Security Council meeting, the council president, Ahmed Snoussi of Morocco, read a statement saying the council "expresses its strong support for the use ... of humanitarian airdrops in isolated areas" of Bosnia "that are in critical need of humanitarian supplies and cannot be reached by ground convoys."

In approving the operation, the Security Council brushed aside objections and warnings from the Serb-dominated rump state of Yugoslavia. Yugoslav Foreign Minister Ilija Djukic said in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali that the airdrop "does not have, in our judgment, the necessary legal authority under adopted Security Council resolutions" and denounced it as a "risky and unilateral operation."

Djukic also made what Western diplomats took to be a veiled threat to shoot at the U.S. planes, saying his government "cannot be held responsible for incidents which might take place over Bosnia." Yugoslavia's U.N. ambassador, Dragomir Djokic, said the risk to the relief aircraft from ground fire could come from "all three sides."

In keeping with Clinton's insistence that the airdrops have only "humanitarian purposes," U.S. officials said American cargo planes would be unarmed and unescorted by fighters. But military planners said Navy combat air patrols would fly offshore from the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy, which arrived Thursday in the Adriatic Sea with the largest flotilla of warships yet to enter those confining waters. Administration officials said the United States had warned all parties to the Balkan conflict not to interfere with the flights.

The administration also took care Thursday to preserve what military planners call "operational security," concealing details of the time and manner of the relief flights to make them more difficult to attack. That secrecy was in marked contrast to the ongoing international airlift to Sarajevo, where the routes, altitudes and schedules of every flight are announced in advance.

The security measures highlighted the fact that the airdrop, expected to begin within days, will be the first U.S. military operation conducted in Bosnia without the consent of the parties.

To protect U.S. aircrews and planes, some of the deliveries will be undertaken at night and many will be flown at high altitudes, which afford some protection from ground fire at the expense of accurate airdrops. In addition to C-130 cargo planes, officials said the operation may include MC-130 Combat Talons operated by Special Forces crews. The MC-130, typically used to insert Special Forces teams behind enemy lines, uses terrain-following radar to fly extremely low at speeds near 300 mph, actually climbing to drop its cargo at 250 feet.

In his letter to Boutros-Ghali, Djukic warned that the airdrops "could have some very negative and grave" consequences for peace negotiations, now set to resume next week under the mediation of Cyrus R. Vance and Briton David Owen.

The Clinton administration harbors contrary hopes. U.S. officials said they intend for the Serbs to see the operation as a sign of new commitment to Bosnia and a signal that Serbs should make concessions at the bargaining table.