Stymied Bosnian relief efforts test international peacekeeping mechanisms

July 02, 1992|By Mark Matthews and Richard H. P. Sia | Mark Matthews and Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The growing Western campaign to relieve embattled Bosnia has exposed confusion on the ground that may foreshadow deeper problems if actual combat intervention is required in the Balkan region.

It has also focused new attention on the weakness of European peacemaking mechanisms. Little hope exists that those mechanisms will be substantially strengthened when Western leaders tackle the Yugoslavian disintegration and like problems next week at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).

France's delivery of relief supplies Monday highlighted the confusion evident in the international aid-delivery effort.

France moved in the supplies the day after President Francois Mitterrand made a sudden, dramatic visit to Sarajevo to demonstrate his determination to help hundreds of thousands of Bosnians in danger of starvation.

"The idea was to try to create a movement," a French diplomat said yesterday. But the flights occurred before Sarajevo's airport could be secured by the arrival of Canadian and other reinforcements under the United Nations flag.

The action unsettled U.N. commanders and the United States, which had been waiting in the wings for a U.N. request before mounting its own relief operation. France later halted the flights.

The U.N. request -- for two U.S. C-130 transport planes -- finally came yesterday in time for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to announce it at a White House briefing. But Pentagon officials said the planes couldn't be dispatched until the United States got clarification from the United Nations on what the C-130s should carry. Flights will probably begin this weekend.

France has already objected to Americans acting as air-traffic controllers at the airport in Sarajevo, Pentagon officials said.

Military intervention is an expedient fraught with political problems.

The United States and the European Community, after months of fruitless diplomatic efforts, have taken the giant policy leap of threatening offensive force -- as opposed to protection -- to make sure the thousands of tons of needed relief supplies move forward.

A decision to commit force would first have to be made by the U.N. Security Council.

But the United States and Germany have ruled out supplying combat troops on the ground. So far, no other nation has committed such forces, although 100 French commandos did arrive at Sarajevo airport yesterday.

A U.S. official predicts that there won't be a shortage of volunteers if and when the time comes. France and Canada already have hundreds of peacekeeping troops in United

Nations uniform in the former Yugoslavia. Egyptians, Belgians and even Russians might be available for combat status once the Security Council decided to move forward.

But the dispatch of such forces could be affected by the complex web of historical relationships and ethnic and religious sentiments that for so long paralyzed Europe's overall response.

The singleness of interests that characterized multinational moves against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait does not necessarily apply in the Balkans.

"It gets complicated fast," a senior U.S. official says.

Then there is the question of who would be in charge.

The United Nations would be the titular authority, officials and diplomats agree. But while the United Nation's role in peacekeeping has grown substantially, it is not geared for offensive action.

During the Persian Gulf crisis, the United States assumed the lead, and drew on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's vast resources. The United States has resisted the idea of beefing up the United Nations' military staff committee.

"What we would really like to see is a NATO role," a U.S. official says. This would employ the equipment, planning and coordination honed over four decades, give NATO post-Cold War relevance and ensure a continued strong U.S. role in Europe.

Other countries may have other ideas, however. France, seen here as wanting to assert a leadership role in Europe, is not part of NATO's military structure.

Neither, of course, is Russia, whose ambassador to Washington voiced misgivings last week about seeing NATO intervene.

A senior military officer said that arrangements had yet to be negotiated over command and control of possible U.S. air-combat patrols and multinational air and ground operations that might be needed to neutralize Serbian attacks.

"Providing air cover is one of the options, and as you get closer to doing it, then you decide the command and control issue," said the officer, who declined to be named. He cited the need to wait until almost the last moment so that the "nuances" of mounting a multinational combat operation could be sorted out.

Another U.S. official said the United States wouldn't seek overall command, but didn't know who would assume it.

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