WASHINGTON -- The United States is ready to deploy a "relatively limited" force by air and sea to help in the delivery of relief supplies to Sarajevo but will not send ground combat troops under any circumstances, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said yesterday.
Although U.S. military personnel may be on the ground handling cargo and directing air traffic, it "would be a fair statement" to say that actual combat troops would not be there, he said.
"We are not talking about an insertion of U.S. ground combat forces in Yugoslavia," Mr. Cheney told reporters over breakfast. Other countries would have to provide troops to protect United Nations relief teams at the Sarajevo airport and elsewhere in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina, he said.
Although the defense secretary described U.S. and allied military planning as being "strictly in the earliest planning stages," he indicated that any large-scale aid mission would require huge truck convoys into Sarajevo from staging points outside the region. One likely location is Split, a Croatian port on the Adriatic coast about 105 miles from the be sieged Bosnian capital.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III told reporters that U.S. relief supplies were stockpiled and ready but will be delivered to Bosnia only after U.N. peacekeepers can secure the airport. "We're waiting to get the word from the United Nations," he said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Pete Williams said the United Nations had not asked for U.S. military assistance. But he and other officials reported that the Navy already has moved a cruiser, a destroyer and four amphibious ships -- carrying 2,200 members of a "special operations capable" Marine expeditionary unit -- into the Adriatic Sea. The amphibious ships are also carrying attack and transport helicopters.
Mr. Cheney suggested that U.S. air and sea forces, including fighter aircraft from the USS Saratoga carrier battle group now in port at Cannes, France, would be used to protect the convoys and secure the mountainous roads leading to Sarajevo. At the airport, U.S. planes would only deliver cargo and provide air cover as part of a larger multinational effort to keep the facility under U.N. control.
"Operational details of how we would actually mount the operation . . . haven't been all worked out yet," Mr. Cheney said.
Planning began so recently that Pentagon officials don't know how many U.S. troops will be needed or how long the relief operation may last. Barely a week ago officials took the unusual step of disclosing they were "not making" any plans to provide combat air patrols for a humanitarian mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
For weeks, the military has made known its unwillingness to enter a hostile territory that many officers compare to Lebanon in 1983, when a terrorist bombing killed 241 Marines on a peacekeeping mission at the Beirut airport.
"Think about the last time we put guys at an airport surrounded by hills filled with hostile people," a senior officer said. "Besides, you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys."
Policy-makers were galvanized into a more aggressive posture by the fear that widespread starvation could be only weeks away and by the growing danger of a widening conflict that would seriously undermine the region's shift from communism.
"If anyone thinks it will stop with Bosnia, they're wrong," one U.S. official said.
In addition, policy-makers feared the impact among other breakaway republics in the former Soviet bloc of a growing tendency to trample minorities and settle disputes and age-old grievances by force.
More than 7,400 people have been killed in Bosnia-Herzegovina
since fighting broke out following the republic's March 3 declaration of independence from Yugoslavia. An estimated 1.2 million have been left homeless.
At a meeting yesterday between Mr. Cheney and German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, the two discussed what Mr. Kinkel said later was the "very complex and difficult" geography of the area.
Germany, both because of constitutional restrictions and because of its World War II occupation of parts of Yugoslavia, has ruled out anything but a humanitarian role.
Mr. Cheney, who had urged deployment of an overwhelming U.S. military force against Iraq, drew a sharp distinction between a military-assisted relief mission and military intervention. He also suggested strongly that the United States does not have the same strategic interest in the ethnic conflict in Bosnia as it did in fighting the Persian Gulf war.
"There's a difference between using our [military] assets as part of an international effort to try to deal with a humanitarian crisis, in terms of food, medicine and supplies, vs. a situation where you use U.S. military force to try to resolve a political conflict that involves age-old animosities, a good degree of violence and an enormously complicated political situation on the ground," he said.