U.S. Airdrop Misses Muslims; Relief Planes Fly 2nd Mission Serbs Said to Have Seized Drop Zone Before 1st Flight

The Washington Post
March 2, 1993

SARAJEVO, March 1 – U.S. Air Force cargo planes parachuted a second load of emergency aid to isolated areas of eastern Bosnia tonight, less than 24 hours after the first such airdrop failed to reach the beleaguered Muslim civilians for whom it was intended and apparently fell into the hands of attacking Serb nationalist forces.

The first mission, by three U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo planes to the Muslim town of Cerska, marked a rocky start to direct U.S. involvement in the 10-month-old Bosnian war, and it dramatized the difficulties facing the Clinton administration as it seeks to come to grips with a conflict in which front lines, and thus drop zones, change almost daily.

The results of the second — in which three C-130s dropped more than 18 tons of food and medicine near the Serb-besieged town of Zepa last night — would probably be uncertain until Tuesday morning, U.S. military officials said. Aircrews returnign to Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany after the six-hour mission said they made radar-guided parachute drops through heavy cloud cover and quickly lost sight of the bundles. As with the first mission, the crews said they encountered no hostile fire or other interference from warring factions on the ground.

U.S. military officials in Europe and Washington said the problem with the first mission was that it was planned and executed just as advancing Serb forces seized control of land around the drop zone, frustrating plans to put 22 tons of relief supplies within reach of thousands of Muslim civilians around Cerska who have been surrounded by the Serbs for months.

A senior U.S. officer with direct knowledge of the operation said the American task force, aware of the Serb advance, asked the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees whether to scrub the drop, “and they said would you please go ahead and put it in there anyway, because the population is moving and they may get some of it as they move.”

“Obviously, we’re not interested in supplying combatants,” said a second U.S. officer. “We’re having a bit of difficulty sifting through the information we’ve got on selecting the drop zones themselves.”

Indeed, as the U.S. operation kicked off, Serb forces began advancing on Cerska, U.N. and Muslim military commanders told reporters. Early this morning, the crash of artillery shells was audible from the nearby city of Zvornik, indicating that the Serb attack was still underway, Washington Post correspondent Jonathan C. Randal reported from the scene.

Analysts said the new Serb offensive could complicate the U.S. diplomatic position, coming as special envoys from the United States and Russia joined international mediators at the United Nations in talks aimed at ending the Serb-Croat-Muslim war.

“Cerska is in flames,” Sarajevo radio reported, adding that seven villages on the outskirts of the town had fallen to Serb forces. That report — and a subsequent one claiming 300 deaths in the town — could not be verified.

The effort to parachute relief supplies into eastern Bosnia has been plagued by doubts about whether the task can be done without endangering American pilots and aircraft. The Clinton administration is torn between wanting to help starving Muslims — the chief victims of the war — and avoiding being drawn deeper into the Balkan bloodshed.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Les Aspin described the Sunday night parachute drop as successful. In a statement released jointly with Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Aspin said that “national technical means,” a reference to satellite imagery, showed that many supply bundles landed “within the identified drop zone, which is in the area of Cerska.”

But a shortwave radio operator in Cerska named Edin said today that no food crates had landed in Muslim-held territory. “There was nothing,” Edin told a radio contact in Sarajevo; the Americans, he guessed, must have missed.

“We have no confirmation of anyone receiving any food,” said a senior member of Bosnia’s Muslim-led government, Vice President Ejup Ganic. “For success, the Americans have to repeat the drops over and over again. . . . The {food bundles} are not guided missiles.”

The U.S. planes dropped their loads from an altitude of 10,000 feet to stay out of range of antiaircraft guns and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles available to all the warring sides. Any of the three factions could be tempted to fire at the planes, U.N. military officials here say — the Serbs out of suspicion that the planes are dropping weapons to their Muslim or Croat adversaries; or the Muslims or Croats, hoping such an incident would be blamed on the Serbs and thus provoke U.S. outrage against them.

While flying high makes for a safer mission for the lumbering C-130s, it makes it far more difficult to pinpoint the supply drops. But even at a low altitude, airdrop specialists say the operation would still be hampered by lack of “eyes on the ground.”

Senior U.S. military officers blamed the situation on the lack of special operations reconnaissance forces at the landing zones, a deployment the White House has so far refused to make; the region’s frequent cloud cover, which impedes the use of satellite scanning; and the U.S. decision to refrain from using tactical reconnaissance aircraft, such as camera-equipped F-14s, to swoop in for a closer look. They also said the warring parties have attempted to influence the targeting of the airdrops by putting out misleading information.

One senior officer said operation planners are relying heavily on broadcasts from shortwave radio operators in eastern Bosnia, who also have been a major source of news reports describing calamitous living conditions in isolated villages. The officer said, however, that some of the reports are of dubious reliability.

“Let’s say you’ve got a ham operator who tells you you’ve dropped in the wrong place,” the officer said. “That may cause you not to drop there again, which would be precisely the kind of intelligence the bad guys would want you to have.”

The three aircraft in the first mission aimed their loads at a drop zone 2.2 miles northeast of Cerska, the officer said. He said that satellite photos revealed nine bundles strewn for 350 yards along a snow-covered field near the center of the zone, indicating that at least one of the planes had scored a virtual bull’s eye. Subsequent intelligence, based on other sources, showed that 27 of the 30 bundles dropped landed “in or near” a 630 yard area around the zone.

The satellite photos also showed footprints leading to some of the bundles. “We know some of the bundles have been opened,” one military source said.

Despite the confusion over the first airdrop, Bosnian government officials are delighted that the United States has taken an active role in delivering aid to stranded Muslims and hope it will lead to full-scale U.S. involvement in support of their cause and against the Serbs, whom the United Nations has branded as the aggressors in the war.

Special correspondent Steve Vogel in Frankfurt, Germany, contributed to this report.

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.