SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — NATO warplanes struck near Sarajevo Friday after Bosnian Serbs seized a tank and other heavy weapons from a U.N. depot and shot a U.N. helicopter.
American, Dutch and French planes reportedly took part in the attack, which was ordered by the United Nations to enforce a NATO order banning heavy weapons from around Sarajevo.
Lt. Col. Bertrand Labarsourque of the U.N. force in Sarajevo said he knew of at least one strike that apparently hit a Serb tank about 6 miles from the capital.
The seizure of weapons was an act of desperation by the Bosnian Serbs a day after Yugoslavia [supposedly / allegedly] cut off crucial support to punish them for rejecting the latest plan to end 28 months of war in Bosnia.
It also threatened an increasingly shaky truce that has spared Sarajevo heavy bombardment since February.
Until now, NATO had been reluctant to use air strikes in the capital without an immediate threat to the city. But it launched three strikes in April on Serb targets around the eastern Bosniak enclave of Gorazde, where a similar weapons exclusion zone was later imposed. And in February, two U.S. F-16 fighters shot down four of six Serb jets violating a no-fly zone over Bosnia.
A civilian U.N. source said U.N. staffers were told to be prepared for more air strikes during the evening. Later, a U.N. peacekeeper in Sarajevo, who asked not to be identified, said Bosnian Serbs had pledged to give back the seized weapons.
The NATO raid came after Serbs seized the weapons from a U.N.-guarded site near Sarajevo and shot a U.N. helicopter sent to track the tank.
“NATO aircraft attacked a target within the Sarajevo exclusion zone this afternoon at the request of the United Nations Protection Force,” NATO said in a statement released at its Brussels headquarters.
Results were still being assessed, NATO said.
A State Department official in Washington said the NATO raid was carried out by two U.S. A-10s and two French Mirages. A Pentagon official said Dutch planes also were involved.
Maj. Dacre Holloway, a U.N. spokesman, said the Serbs had parked the seized tank and an armored personnel carrier near a hospital and a school. That would make it nearly impossible for NATO planes to try to hit the weapons because of the danger of hitting civilians.
Apparently for that reason, plans to strike the seized vehicles were scrapped and substitute targets were considered, a U.N. civilian source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The source said three targets had been selected, but the NATO statement referred to only one. Sniper and small-arms fire intensified around Sarajevo after the air strike. Witnesses said two passengers on the city streetcar line were wounded.
Maj. Rob Annink of the U.N. peacekeepers reported that Serbs fired two rounds of 82mm mortar fire into a Sarajevo neighborhood on Wednesday in clear violation of the 12.5-mile weapons exclusion zone.
It was the first time the United Nations had confirmed heavy weapons were fired on central Sarajevo since NATO ordered the Serbs in February to remove heavy weapons out of the exclusion zone or turn them over to U.N. control.
Any violation of the exclusion zone would be grounds for U.N. commanders to call NATO air strikes. Firing on the U.N. helicopter is also grounds for an air strike.
Annink said an undetermined number of Serb soldiers raided the weapons shortly before 4 a.m. today from a U.N. collection point in Serb-held Ilidza, just west of Sarajevo.
About 30 Ukrainian peacekeepers guarding the site didn’t notice the incursion until the Serbs were leaving with the weapons, Annink said.
U.N. commanders sent a French Puma helicopter to track the tank, but the helicopter returned to its base after several rounds of small-arms fire hit it, Annink said. No one of board was injured, he said.
Shortly afterward, peacekeepers traveling by road were blocked at a Serb police checkpoint when they tried to move into the area where the tank had been sighted, northwest of Sarajevo.
Annink said Serb commanders contended their troops needed the seized weapons to fend off attacks by government forces in the area around Vares and Visoko north of Sarajevo.
“The Bosnian Serb army had an overwhleming advantage in heavy weapons,” Annink said. “In my opinion, they would not need these four weapons.”
The NATO ban on heavy weapons around Sarajevo went into effect in February after a mortar shell killed dozens of people in a marketplace in downtown Sarajevo.
Tensions spiraled in Bosnia after Yugoslavia [supposedly / allegedly] severed all economic and political ties with Bosnian Serbs on Thursday.
Nationalist Bosnian Serb leaders have pledged to fight on even without Serbia’s support, which has been vital to their domination of their fight with Bosniaks and Croats.
Most telephone service was cut off today between Bosnian Serb territory and Yugoslavia, now consisting only of Serbia and tiny Montenegro. The Yugoslav news agency Tanjug said all truck traffic across the border had been halted.
President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia is widely blamed for inciting Bosnian Serbs to rebel against Bosnia’s secession from Yugoslavia.