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NATO Strikes on Serbs Accurate, But Many Strategic Targets Spared

By Art Pine
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

The Pentagon said Monday that allied air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs this month have been the most accurate on record, but analysts said they still failed to destroy most of the Serbs' overall war-making capability because, for political reasons, the targets were so restricted.

While declining to provide specific figures, senior military officers said that increased use of laser-guided munitions in Bosnia meant that a higher percentage of the bombs dropped struck their targets than in the Persian Gulf War, which marked a breakthrough in bombing accuracy.

At the same time, however, private analysts - and some senior defense officials as well - said that North Atlantic Treaty Organization political leaders were so intent on avoiding "collateral" damage to civilians that pilots were prevented from going after many key weapons, such as tanks and individual artillery pieces.

As a result, they said, despite some 900 bombing runs by NATO warplanes, the air campaign only moderately damaged the Bosnian Serbs' basic war-waging capability, leaving them still able to threaten Sarajevo and other U.N.-designated safe havens if the political situation should change.

"This was a politically correct target list," said retired Air Force Col. Robert W. Gaskin, a former Pentagon military strategist. "The Serbs weren't really damaged that much militarily," he said. "The main reason that they are retreating is that the allies were persistent."

The allies' insistence on avoiding damage to civilians and public buildings such as schools and churches was a key consideration in the recent series of bombing raids. Officials said NATO air commanders personally reviewed all prospective targets to make sure they were isolated.

The allied bombing of Bosnian Serb targets began on Aug. 30, after the Serb militia shelled Sarajevo, and continued until the United Nations called a brief moratorium. The air strikes resumed on Sept. 5 and continued until Thursday, when the Serbs agreed on a cease-fire.

The United Nations and NATO have granted the Bosnian Serbs another reprieve on grounds that they appear to be moving their heavy weapons out of the exclusion zone around Sarajevo. NATO has said that if the Serbs do not have all their weapons out by 4 p.m. (EDT) on Wednesday, the air strikes will resume.

U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry told reporters last week that NATO's air campaign had been "enormously effective," with bomb-damage assessments showing "levels of effectiveness of about 95 percent" - meaning that NATO bombs destroyed or disabled almost all the targets on which they were dropped.

The military officers who briefed reporters Monday did not dispute that assessment, but they declined to provide any backup figures on grounds that the battle-damage assessments had not yet been completed. They also cited concerns that detailed information could be of help to the Serbs.

One senior military official said that in 25 years as an intelligence officer, he had "never seen (a) better battle-damage assessment" than that of the last month. "This is an excellent precision battle strike against an opponent and I've never seen it better," he added.

In Monday's presentation, senior military officials said that the bombings had "severely reduced" Bosnian Serb air defenses.