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NATO Warplanes Attack Bosnian Serb Positions

By Art Pine and Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

The United States and its major allies reportedly launched air strikes late Tuesday against the Bosnian Serbs, blaming them for the lethal shelling this week of civilians in the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

NATO warplanes were heard over Sarajevo early Wednesday, and, according to news service reports, allied forces were bombing nationalist Serb positions east and south of the city.

There were no immediate damage or fatality reports in the darkened city, where a mortar attack Monday killed 37 people and injured more than 85 others in one of the deadliest attacks in more than 18 months.

That incident in a U.N.-declared "safe area" led to intense discussions by senior policy-makers in the West about reprisals against the Bosnian Serbs.

The American and allied diplomats, as well as officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations, have been under mounting pressure to make some sort of response to the mortar attack, amid growing embarrassment among U.S. leaders that the delay was costing their peacekeeping effort additional credibility.

On Tuesday, allied officials had said any retaliation would involve a series of "substantial" attacks designed to destroy several major targets, such as Bosnian Serb ammunition dumps and communications centers. They dismissed suggestions that the action would begin a military campaign against the rebel Serbs. "It won't go on for days," one official said. "It's only meant to respond to Monday's shelling."

As a backup for action, the Pentagon on Tuesday ordered the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt back to the Adriatic Sea off the Bosnian coast. The ship had been in the eastern Mediterranean, near Iraq.

The Clinton administration on Tuesday also welcomed as "potentially positive" a new letter from Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic hailing the latest U.S. peace initiative as a basis for negotiating a peace accord.

Karadzic's gesture came in a letter to former President Carter, who said in a televised interview on the Cable News Network that he thought there was "good reason to take (it) and put it to the test."

Shortly after Carter's appearance, State Department spokesman Nick Burns told reporters the administration was studying the document and had found "potentially positive elements" in it. Burns said Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke would discuss elements of the letter in talks Wednesday with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic..

But, he asserted that, despite Pale's latest gesture, the administration continued to believe that the allies should retaliate against the Bosnian Serbs for Monday's shelling of Sarajevo. "The appearance of the Karadzic letter in no way dissuades us that there should be an appropriate military response," he said in a statement. "It's very important that the Bosnian Serbs be held accountable."

Earlier, Burns dismissed reports aired over Bosnian Serb radio saying the self-styled Bosnian Serb government in Pale now was willing to negotiate a peace settlement the the Bosnian Muslims and Croats. "Words are cheap - actions are more important," he told reporters. "(Monday's) actions were murderous, they're reprehensible and the Bosnian Serbs must be held accountable for those actions."

But U.S. officials said they were at least mildly encouraged by the Karadzic letter because it appeared to accept the U.S. formula dividing Bosnia about evenly between the Muslim-Croat coalition and the Serbs.

The Bosnian government, however, has said its willingness to accept the U.S. initiative depended on whether NATO could be trusted to enforce terms of any agreement, as U.S. officials have pledged. If NATO does not act now, Bosnian government officials said, there is no basis for trust.

Demanding that the Bosnian Serb artillery that surrounds Sarajevo be destroyed, Izetbegovic said Tuesday that he would probably have to pull out of peace talks if no retaliatory action against the Serbs is taken. "We cannot negotiate with a gun at our head," he said in Paris, where he was meeting with Holbrooke.

On Tuesday, another mortar killed a 4-year-old girl outside a Sarajevo apartment building and wounded two little friends with her, even as bodies shattered in Monday's attack lay side by side at the city's overcrowded morgue to await burial in its overcrowded cemeteries.

Calls for military reprisals against the Bosnian Serbs came from a wide range of sources and suggested a rare consensus.