Satellite photos indicate that only a third of the supplies hit the designated zone
By Stephen Kinzer
N.Y. Times News Service
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, p. Front and 22A.
2 March 1993.
FRANKFURT, Germany — At least two-thirds of the relief supplies dropped overnight from high altitudes into a besieged area of Bosnia-Herzegovina may have failed to reach hungry Bosniak civilians, and some may have fallen into the hands of Serbian fighters, U.S. officials said on Monday.
Using satellite photographs, the officials said they had been able to determine that one-third of the bundles had reached their intended destination in a mountainous and partly wooded area within walking distance of Cerska, in eastern Bosnia.
But in the area, doubts were raised that even one-third of the supplies had reached the intended target. Surveys of radio operators in eastern Bosnia, for example, failed to turn up a single one who knew of a pallet’s being recovered.
In Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, a vice president, Zlatko Lagumdzija, said on Monday evening that the supplies were in the hands of Serbian units besieging Cerska. The Serbian commander in Bosnia, Gen. Ratko Mladic, confirmed that at least some supplies had landed in areas controlled by his troops.
Pentagon officials in Washington said it was not clear where the bundles that were not seen in satellite photographs had landed. They said it was possible some had landed in or near the drop area but had not been seen.
“The airdrop was successful,” Defense Secretary Les Aspin said in a statement, adding: “We can confirm that many of the bundles landed in clear areas within the identified drop zone” and “the other bundles landed in or near the drop zone, but we are unable to confirm exact landing points.”
From the beginning, the administration has acknowledged that the purpose of the airdrop was more political than humanitarian, and that the intervention was intended to bring the warring factions to the negotiating table.
Pentagon officials also chose to drop supplies from 10,000 feet, acknowledging that much of the food and medicine might not reach its destination. On Monday, however, U.S. officials seemed troubled by reports that only a small portion of the aid might be getting to those who need it.
The supplies were dropped by three C-130 transports flying from Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt at night and buffeted by strong winds over the drop site. One Pentagon official said the target area was only about 1,000 feet by 2,000 feet.
The operation is intended mainly for the estimated 200,000 Muslims whose villages are under siege by Serbian nationalist forces, but U.S. officials, anxious to avoid the appearance of partiality, say they want to supply Bosnian civilians of all ethnic backgrounds.
Officers directing the operation declined to say when more supplies would be dropped. The airdrops are expected to continue on almost nightly basis, with three to five planes in each mission.
A military spokesman, acknowledging the problems, said: “Some may have fallen on the Serb side, and some may have gone to previously Bosniak areas that were just captured by the Serbs. Some may have gone into the mountains or places people can’t get to.
“What would be ideal is if we could get a call from someone in Bosnia who would tell us, “‘I’m eating one of your meals and it tastes good.’ So far, we haven’t heard anything like that.’”
Although U.S. and U.N. officials at first refused to say where the supplies had been dropped, several said later that the three planes were aiming at Cerska.
Reports from Cerska said no aid was received there. A radio operator there speculated that flight crews might have been misled by house fires in a Serbian-controlled zone.
“Houses were burning in some of the recently captured territory,” said the operator, who is known as Edin. “Maybe they thought it was a signal to drop there.”
Military spokesmen in Frankfurt said the planes dropped a total of three 760-pound crates of medicine, mostly first-aid items like gauze and bandages, and 27 crates of food. The food crates, 1,550 pounds each, contained a total of 20,736 prepared meals.
Even before the mission, current and former Pentagon officials cautioned that all supplies might not be delivered. The standard procedure for an accurate airdrop is to do it at low altitude, in daylight, with spotters on the ground; the Bosnian airdrop failed on all three counts.
But Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted that the airdrops be carried out at high altitude to minimize the risk to the crews from anti-aircraft weapons.