U.N. Officials Dispute U.S. Airdrop Proposal; Peril to Aircrews over Bosnia Is Cited

The Washington Post
February 22, 1993

SARAJEVO, Feb. 21 –  U.N. military and humanitarian aid officials disagreed today about the wisdom of proposed American airdrops to starving Bosnian civilians, but they concurred that such an operation could entail significant risks to the cargo planes and aircrews involved.

Relief workers here said the most important thing is to get food and medicine to civilians cut off by Serb nationalist forces as quickly as possible, and they noted that the U.N. refugee agency has been requesting airdrops for months. “I’d welcome anything that gets supplies to hungry people,” said Tony Land, spokesman for the agency here.

However, a spokesman for U.N. relief support forces on the ground in Bosnia — which now number about 8,000 troops — expressed deep concern about the proposed airdrops, saying they would be too risky and too inefficient. “We are not enthusiastic about the idea,” said spokesman Barry Frewer.

Officials of Bosnia’s Slavic Muslim-led government vigorously support airdrops to Serb-besieged areas in the war-torn republic — particularly in the east where scores of Muslim towns and villages have been isolated since fighting erupted among Bosnia’s Serbs, Muslims and Croats more than 10 months ago.

At the same time, however, officials here say they fear that Washington and the United Nations may view airdrops as an answer to Bosnia’s misery rather than a stop-gap measure. “These inventions are new ways to help us that don’t really help us,” said one Bosnian government figure. “Dropping a few hundred tons of food will not stop the killing. You can’t cure cancer with Alka-Selzer.”

For their part, residents of Serb-besieged Sarajevo — now in the 11th day of their refusal to accept further U.N. food shipments until the world body provides aid to the starving towns in the east — welcomed the U.S. airdrop proposal as a sign that Washington is finally moving to ease their suffering. “We have already forgotten what milk looks like, or what onions and vegetables look like,” said Hamdo Sicic, a cook at a refugee center here. “So if the only way to help eastern Bosnia is to starve, then we will do it.”

Frewer said the biggest threat to aircraft taking part in airdrops would come from local militia commanders suspicious that the planes might drop weapons and ammunition to combatants on the ground. U.N. truck convoys trying to reach cutoff Muslim towns are routinely subjected to rigorous searches by Serb militiamen; some have gone so far as to shake cans of tuna to make sure there are no bullets inside.

Airdrop material presumably would be available for inspection by all warring sides at embarkation sites, but that would mean militia commanders at the drop points would not be able to examine the supplies, and officials here say that could cause problems. “If there are suspicions on the ground that these are weapons-delivery airdrops, it’s anybody’s guess what would happen,” Frewer said. “They might shoot back.”

The U.S. military is considering airdrops from altitudes beyond the range of normal antiaircraft fire, but that limits the accuracy of the drops. It is unclear what antiaircraft weaponry the local Serbs have around such hard-pressed Muslim enclaves as Cerska, Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde, but their political patrons in neighboring Serbia have provided them with a range of modern firepower sufficient to have helped them seize 70 percent of Bosnia.

Refugee agency spokesman Land noted that an Italian cargo plane was shot down last year while ferrying supplies to Sarajevo, killing its four-man crew and that a number of other Western relief planes have been damaged by groundfire. These attacks occurred even though the warring factions had agreed last summer to permit the Sarajevo airlift along safe air corridors into the city. But if airdrops to besieged Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia are begun over the objections of the Serbs, he pointed out, there would be no safe corridors, and risks to the aircrews would be far greater.

Officials of the U.N. aid-support mission here — which consists largely of troops from France, Britain and Spain — say they prefer to press forward with truck convoys to isolated civilians, even though they. acknowledge that such efforts have failed to deliver more than token aid to eastern Bosnia.

A 10-truck convoy managed today to reach Zepa, which had received only one other aid shipment since the war began. The success of this convoy, however, required several days of intense negotiations between U.N. officials and local Serb militia forces. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer,” Land observed. “One convoy into Zepa and one convoy into Cerska is . . . not good enough. Our objective is regular deliveries.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.