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U.S. General Says French Officials Endangered American War Pilots

By Paul Richter

In emotional testimony, the American general who commanded NATO warplanes over Yugoslavia blasted the French on Thursday for vetoing planned airstrikes, saying the moves heightened danger to young U.S. fliers.

Lt. Gen. Michael Short, whose son flew an A-10 Warthog plane in the conflict, declared before a Senate panel that French officials, by imposing “extraordinary” restrictions on targets, made NATO operations more predictable and “placed our troops at increased risk.”

France, whose fliers conducted only 8 percent of the sorties in the air war, should not have been “in a position of restricting American aviators who are bearing 70 percent of the load -- and who are in harm’s way,” said Short, who retires from the military on July 1.

While Short and other U.S. officers have previously expressed frustration about the operations, Thursday’s comments were by far the most forceful.

“I can’t remember a time when a senior military official involved in an operation... has publicly offered criticism like this,” said Daniel Goure, a former Pentagon official at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s pretty unique.”

At the French Embassy in Washington, a spokesman declined comment.

But a European diplomat in Washington sharply disputed Short’s remarks, saying that French fliers accounted for 10 percent of NATO missions in the war and that NATO’s policy decisions affected their physical safety as well.

This diplomat, who declined to be identified, said NATO members could never give military leaders a free hand to conduct their operations without oversight. “This was not ‘sign and forget,’” he said. “That is not our concept of the conduct of war.”

U.S. officials have often boasted about NATO unity during the 78-day air war, but Short’s critique called attention to the stresses that lay just below the surface of the 19-nation alliance.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Short implied that the Clinton administration should have exerted greater pressure on the French to permit strikes on more targets.

“I understand how strongly the French feel their position,” Short said. “But I felt the United States of America was in a position to leverage our position of being the big dog, to a degree that perhaps we did not.”

Short’s voice cracked as he praised the young U.S. fliers and described how his emotional stake in the fight was deepened by the presence of his son, who flew 40 missions and whose plane was struck by a Serbian antiaircraft missile.

Short said the risks to U.S. troops were increased by French insistence that there be only two strikes on Montenegro, the smaller of two republics.