WED, 23 NOV 1994 10:04:15 GMT
The Firts Massive NATO Air Attack
AIM, BELGRADE, November 21, 1994
Contents: The air strike on the airport in Udbina is the first massive use of NATO air-force in the conflict in former Yugoslavia. Numerous victims and destruction of civilian objectives were avoided. Direct military effects are less significant than the message addressed to the Serbs. The reaction of the Krajina Serbs is lukewarm, and Belgrade is silent.
Yesterday's air raid of NATO airplanes on the airport belonging to Krajina Serbs in Udbina will have far-reaching consequences on war events in former Yugoslavia. Primarily, this is so far the most massive air strike of the North Atlantic alliance with as many as 39 airplanes participating in it. From that point of view, it cannot even be compared with the previous five actions from the air.
Combat air-force was used for the first time on February 28 this year, when two US fighter planes shot down four Serbian airplanes over Banjaluka. On April 10, again, two US fighter-planes attacked Serbian positions around Gorazde, and a day later, the action was repeated in the same region.
A group of fighter plabnes belonging to the Allies struck at the Serbian positions around Sarajevo on August 5, and on September 22, three NATO planes destroyed an empty Serbian tank near Sarajevo.
All these actions followed after direct warnings addresed to the Serbian party (which practically announced the exact time of the attacks), while yesterday's pass of an entire fleet came almost two days after the news arrived about renewed activities of Serbian air-force from Krajina against the forces of the Government in Sarajevo in the region of Bihac. This means that the military commanders of the NATO and the UNPROFOR chose the most convenient moment for the attack on their own, and that "punishment" came with a delay, and not as instantaneous response to the activity of Serbian air-force.
Special envoy of United Nations Secretary General, Yasushi Akashi, explained that the intention was to put the airport in Udbina out of action, in order to prevent possible new actions of the Serbian air-force on Bihac. This was, therefore, the matter of a kind of prevention, and not solely a response to a move of the Serbian party.
All this is, naturally, in line with the previously reached agreement between the UN and the NATO about a change of tactics in using air-forces, which implies broadening of the mandate of the UN and NATO officers who make decisions. Massive participation in the yesterday's military action was intended, among other, to show that a firm agreement had been reached which will not be abandoned or moderated.
From the military aspect, there could have been several reasons for the choice of the airport in Udbina. Primarily, it is an objective which is comparatively easy to strike and which is not immediately next to civilian settlements. The situation is "clear" and there was no possibility to hit the objectives of the party which was not the subject of threats of air-raids, since the frontline is very far away. The airport and the facilities on it are the so-called fixed targets which are comparatvely easy to strike. When the weather is nice, as it was yesterday, the conditions for the attack are similar to those which prevailed in Iraq.
Bihac and the Government forces which are defending the region of Western Bosnia are threatened more by Serbian forces and the forces of the seceded Muslim lader, Fikret Abdic, on the ground, than by the air-force from Krajina. Artillery was drawn to that region, and a large number of tanks was observed. The forces are very close to each other there and the ground is relatively inconvenient. The line of the front passes through civilian settlements, so the danger of missing the target and hitting the troops which are not the target and the civilians is far greater.
Such an approach was successful. Nobody was killed during the attack, although during the day it was reported by Serbian sources that there were victims among the civilians and that surrounding villages were bombed. According to the data available on Monday night, however, six people were wounded, probably, they were soldiers at the airport and members of the staff working at the airport. It is certain that the runway and airport buildings were struck, and probably some of the anti-aircraft batteries and launching pads for anti-aircraft missiles. The NATO obviously wished to achieve the maximum effects with the minimum victims.
The Serbian party was evidently taken completely by surprise, because the strike did not come as an instantaneous respoonse to the activities of its air-force. There are indications that the surprise was so great that the Serbs did not manage even to activate the anti-aircraft defense and open fire at the planes.
Military effects of the attack, however, are debatable, since the role of the air-force in fights around Bihac was not big anyway, and the interruption of flights, which the Serbs deny to have ever existed, will not change the actual situation at the front around Bihac, anyway. Should the Serbs decide, the attacks could continue with the same force. Therefore, this was rather a "roaring announcement" of the NATO that it would intevene in the conflict more resolutely from now on, without hesitating to take even retroactive actions.
Regarding the proportions of the attack, the reactions of the Krajina Serbs could be described as extremely restrained. There were no threats of retaliation or eloquent calls to defend Serbdom, and the leader of Krajina Serbs, Milan Martic, in a statement given just a few hours after the air raid, emphasized that the UNPROFOR "is not guilty at all", and spoke in favour of full safety of the peace forces located in the area controlled by the Serbian forces. He said that the attack was a "vandalistic act" and that the international community had taken sides with Croatia, as he had routinely repeated many times before in much less critical moments.
It is also indicative that in its first reactions, Knin did not find it fit to define its stance concerning the continuation of the negotiations with Zagreb. It was logical to expect that one of the first moves would be the decision to withdraw from the negotiations. It is possible that such a decision about the withdrawal will come in the next few days, but the very fact that they hesitate to make such a decision points to extreme restraint on the part of Knin and a desire to extricate themselves from this incident with the least possible political stresses.
In Belgrade, there was complete silence. State television did not even report about the event in the afternoon news broadcasts, few hours after the attack, and Yugoslav and Serbian officials did not come out with a statement until evening. The only one to stick his neck out was the President of the External Policy Board of the Yugoslav Assembly, Borisav Jovic, who sent word from Peking where he is staying in a visit, that it was "a vandalistic act" and accused the initiators of the action of planning to broaden the conflict. Peking is far away, so Jovic's stance should not necessarily be taken as the stance of Belgrade. The only official reaction was the statement of the Federal Government broadcasted on Monday evening, which was also lukewarm and almost routine.
The fact that a meeting of Slobodan Milosevic, Yasushi Akashi and Milan Martic is scheduled for Wednesday already certainly is not insignificant. It remains to be seen what effect the argument in the form of 39 jet fighter planes in full combat run will have on the latter.