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NATO Downing of Serbian Planes Could Change War

By John Pomfret
The Washington Post
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina

NATO's downing Monday of four Serb warplanes over Bosnia, like the deadly mortar attack on Sarajevo's marketplace three weeks ago, is a military action that could alter the course of the war in this battle-scarred country.

The NATO attack in northwest Bosnia proved to the Bosnian Serbs and their mentors in Belgrade that "NATO has teeth," said British army Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, the commander of United Nations forces in Bosnia. With the U.N.-enforced cease-fire in Sarajevo and Monday's dogfight in the Bosnian skies, both the United Nations and NATO have now shown a willingness to go beyond mere words in their effort to end the worst conflict in Europe since World War II.

These new roles raise the questions of whether the United Nations has enough personnel in Bosnia to implement the changes, and how the warring parties will react to the new situation.

U.N. officials say that if the Bosnian Serbs, largely seen as the main aggressors in this three-sided conflict, accept the new involvement of U.N. forces and NATO, then Monday's strike against the Galeb ground attack aircraft could provide an impulse to the process aimed at stopping the 23-month-old battle to divide Bosnia.

But if Serb forces take issue with the United Nations' more robust interpretation of its mission here, then they will place themselves on a collision course with the international community. The result of such a confrontation could be dire for both the Serbs and the thousands of lightly armed U.N. soldiers and aid workers stretched across the forbidding hillocks and valleys of this mountainous land.

Until recently, the U.N. operation in the shattered republics of what used to be Yugoslavia has essentially tiptoed around the combatants. Starting in 1992, the Bosnian operation's main task has been to deliver aid to the 2.7 million people estimated to depend on handouts to survive. Despite U.N. Security Council resolutions approving the use of "necessary force" to deliver aid here, U.N. troops have never shot their way through one of the myriad roadblocks erected by the warring sides.

Now, under the leadership of Rose, the fourth commander of the U.N. mission here since it began, the U.N. operation has adopted a more aggressive stance. It announced Sunday, for example, that it would no longer seek permission for its aid convoys to cross battlelines but would simply notify the warning sides and proceed. Rose has negotiated and implemented Sarajevo's most successful cease-fire to date -- an 18-day truce that has brought some peace to this crumbling capital, where an estimated 10,000 people have died since the war began.

NATO, too, had long taken an ambiguous approach to involvement in the war. It began prosecuting a "no-fly zone" over Bosnia in April 1993, flexing its military muscles for the first time beyond the territory of its member states. But it proceeded to allow hundreds of violations by all sides, most of them by helicopters, to pass with impunity.

Gen. Ratko Mladic, commander of Bosnian Serb forces, for example, led the assault on the strategic peaks of mounts Bijelasnica and Igman near Sarajevo last summer from the passenger seat of a Gazelle attack helicopter. When Russian ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky visited Bijeljina, Bosnia, on Jan. 31, a Serb warplane buzzed the town as Serbs cheered.

Monday's attack occurred after the Galeb aircraft had bombed the northwest Bosnian town of Banja Luka.

"This was a gross miscalculation on the part of the Serbs," said a senior Western military official involved in the NATO operation. "These changes have thrown the Serbs seriously off-balance."

Rose said in an interview that Monday's NATO action would help to further calm the situation in Sarajevo. "This shows that if there's a NATO ultimatum, it's not a hollow ultimatum," he said. "There's a clear read across to other NATO orders," such as the one concerning Sarajevo.

In the interview, Rose also said the NATO attack raises security concerns for U.N. troops. Those concerns, along with violations of Sarajevo's cease-fire, highlight how overstretched the U.N. force in Bosnia has become, he said.