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NATO Planes Attack Air Base, Artillery Sites

By Art Pine
Los Angeles Times

Western warplanes launched a limited attack on a Serb nationalist air base and on missile and anti-aircraft artillery sites in south central Croatia on Monday, destroying the air defenses and making the runways and taxiways unusable, U.S. and allied officials said.

The attack, carried out by North Atlantic Treaty Organization warplanes in retaliation for this month's three sorties by Serb nationalists near the Bosnian city of Bihac, marked the most extensive strike that the alliance has launched in its 1{-year effort to protect United Nations-sanctioned safe areas in Bosnia.

About 40 NATO aircraft took part in the attack, launched at 6:30 a.m. EST from five separate NATO bases in Italy. Officials said that all the aircraft returned to their bases undamaged.

Pentagon officials said that the strikes knocked out one Serb-controlled SA-6 surface-to-air missile battery and some anti-aircraft artillery pieces and left five large craters in the airfield runway, blocking the use of the accompanying taxiways as well.

As in previous NATO air strikes, the raid was carefully limited to minimize the risk that it would spur either Serb nationalists or Croatians to widen the war. U.S. military experts said that the airfield could be repaired easily.

Nevertheless, allied officials said, the strike succeeded in "sending a message" that the U.N. and NATO allies "will not tolerate the use of bases in Croatia for military operations in Bosnia."

President Clinton, in a session with reporters, called the NATO strike "a strong and entirely appropriate response."

"We'll just have to see how events develop," he said. "But I strongly support the NATO action."

And Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned that if Serb nationalists do not stop using their warplanes to bomb Bihac, NATO fighters "will not hesitate" to return with orders to do substantially more damage than they did on Monday.

Bosnian government reports said that ground fighting in the Bihac area was continuing, but it seemed likely that the Serb-controlled bombing would be interrupted at least temporarily.

U.S. Adm. Leighton W. Smith, commander of the NATO operation, said that the allied air armada scored "good hits" in the area. But he added: "It's fairly easy to fill up a hole in an airfield, so I don't expect this to be out of commission for an awfully long time."

The raid was the first under a new U.N.-NATO get-tough policy that extended the no-fly zone previously maintained only over Bosnia and authorized NATO warplanes to strike at multiple targets, rather than using "pinprick" raids against a single tank.

Monday's action came after Bosnian Serb forces, backed by renegade Muslim troops, attacked Bosnian government soldiers throughout northwestern Bosnia early Monday, defying a U.N. threat to launch the NATO air strikes if the Serbs did not stop.

Serb-controlled warplanes had used the Udbina airfield as a base for launching air strikes on Bihac, the Bosnian city initially held by the Muslims that government forces took back last week. Bihac has since fallen again to the Serbs.

On Saturday, the U.N. Security Council voted to allow NATO to expand the no-fly zone, which has prohibited Bosnian Serb warplanes from flying over the country. Under the embargo, any Serb plane caught violating the restrictions is subject to being shot down.

Despite all the warnings by U.S. and NATO officials, policy-makers here stressed that the allies were acting gingerly to avoid any spread of the ground fighting into Croatia.

"Both the Bosnian government and the Croatian government understand that we do not intend to support any action by them that would widen the war, and we made that point strongly to both Zagreb and Sarajevo (their respective capitals)," a U.S. official said later.

The official also denied that the raid marked the beginning of any new allied effort to push the Serbs to the peace table by using military force.

Military officials said Monday's raid lasted an hour and 45 minutes. Following standard procedures, allied warplanes first swept in to knock out Serb nationalist air-defense positions, paving the way for bombing runs. The Serbs fired a missile at the planes but apparently missed.