NATO Hits and Destroys 4 Serbian Fighter Jets
The Daily Gazette, p.A1 and A6.
1 March 1994.
Bosnian Serbs put NATO’s long-questioned resolve to test on Monday and received a swift, severe answer: Missiles from U.S. F-16 fighter jets downed four Serb warplanes.
It was the first time that NATO had struck militarily in its 44-year history, and came after repeated threats by the alliance to intervene to back U.N. resolutions aimed at ending the 23-month war.
NATO said the planes ignored several warnings to leave a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone over Bosnia or face attack, then were observed bombing a Muslim-controlled area. U.N. officials said the Serbs were bombing an arms plant.
Bosnian Serbs first denied involvement. But one Serb army official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that four of their planes were shot down. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said Serb pilots might have been making “training flights.”
No one was seen bailing out from the downed jets, which each seat two. Two of the U.S. F-16 pilots involved in the attack said they did not think the Serb crewmen survived because each plane hit became “a fireball.” They spoke with reporters at the U.S. base in Aviano, Italy.
NATO and the United Nations say they are neutral in the Bosnian conflict and will act against any side violating U.N. agreements. Most recently, the alliance forced Serbs to remove artillery from Sarajevo.
Bosnian officials glad
Bosnian government officials, who have appealed repeatedly for outside help for their outgunned troops, were exuberant.
“Better days are ahead of us,” Bosnian Vice President Ejup Ganic said in Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital.
“This is the first reaction of the U.N. and NATO after hundreds, maybe thousands of no-fly zone violations. In any case, we are saluting this action,” said Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic.
Russia, a traditional Serb ally that criticized NATO over its ultimatum to Serbs on the Sarajevo siege,, reacted mildly to the clash. “If the Serbs did this, I ee no justification.,” said Defense Minister Pavel Grachev.
Although Russian has warned that military intervention could worsen the war, Grachev said he did not think the incident would escalate the conflict.
Hours after the planes were downed, Karadzic arrived in Moscow to consult with Russian diplomats. The Bosnian Serb leader told reporters at Moscow’s airport that his visit was meant to “ensure the peace process,” but he declined further comment.
U.S. Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, the NATO commander for southern Europe, said the lesson to be learned from the incident was simple: “You ought no to violate the no-fly zone.” He said NATO would not hesitate to fire on any other violators.
The ban was imposed in October 1992, after Bosnian Serbs had overrun about 70 percent of Bosnia’s territory in fighting with government soldiers and Bosnian Croat forces.
Boorda said U.S. pilots detected six planes by radar and broadcast three warnings for them to immediately land or leave Bosnian air space or risk attack. No response was received, and the Americans then saw the planes “make a bombing maneuver” and witnessed explosions on the ground, he said.
One U.S. plane then shot down three planes with air-to-air missiles and a second U.S. plane downed a fourth. Boorda said at a briefing in Naples, Italy. The two other planes escaped by flying west over Croatia and then north and back east over Banja Luka, a Serb-controlled region in northwestern Bosnia, NATO said. Many of the Bosnian Serb aircraft are based in Banja Luka.
The four destroyed planes were all hit over the Banja Luka area, NATO officials said. None of the Yugoslav-built Soko G-4 Super Galeb aircraft returned fire at the U.S. jets, Boorda said.
NATO officials said only the Bosnian Serb military and Yugoslav air force were known to have Galeb aircraft, built in Mostar, Bosnia, before the Yugoslav federation began breaking up. The single-engine planes can carry twin-barrel rapid-fire canon and bombs.
In Washington, President Clinton said “every attempt was made” to avoid shooting down the planes.
Clinton said helicopters had often violated the no-fly zone in the past, but there had been no violations by planes since September. Boorda said previous violations by planes involved quick, short flights by single aircraft.
The United Nations canceled relief flights into Sarajevo and most truck convoys in Bosnia, apparently for fear of retaliatory attacks by Serb forces. But U.N. spokesman Kris Janowski said the Sarajevo airlift would resume today.
The U.S. aircraft carrier Saratoga, which also provides planes for the air patrols over Bosnia, was ordered to cut short a port call in Trieste, Italy, and head back to its station in the Adriatic Sea.
The 16-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed last April to enforce the no-fly zone.
The Bosnian Serb air force had 30 jets — 12 Galebs and Jastreb fighter-bombers and 12 former Yugoslav Orao [Eagle] fighter-bombers. The remaining six jets are believed to be Soviet-built MiG-21 fighters.
In Tuzla, meanwhile, Serbs shelled an airfield Monday in what U.N. officials said might have been retaliation for NATO’s downing of the Serb planes.
As tension mounted in Bosnia, an 18-day-old cease-fire in Sarajevo showed signs of fraying.
Sixteen artilery rounds were reported to have hit the Tuzla airfield, including one on the airstrip itself. There were no injuries.
The Serbs, who oppose U.N. plans to open the airfield March 7, have shelled the area frequently in recent weeks. Tuzla is the Muslim-led Bosnian government’s largest enclave outside of Sarajevo.
The shelling underscored growing tension in Serb-Bosniak confrontation zones, despite a cease-fire that has mostly held in Sarajevo since Feb. 10.