Major backs airdrop plan for Bosnia Britain won't join in U.S. effort

February 25, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- British Prime Minister John Major gave a qualified endorsement yesterday to President Clinton's plan to airdrop humanitarian relief in eastern Bosnia but declined to participate.

"I think the prospect that the president is exploring is an imaginative one, and I hope it will prove successful. There are a number of logistics to be worked out," Mr. Major said at a joint news conference with Mr. Clinton at the White House.

Both leaders put the best face possible on Britain's reluctance to join the effort, agreeing that Britain, which has 3,000 troops on the ground in the Balkans, already was doing its part.

Mr. Clinton said he had not asked Britain to join in the effort. And, unlike United Nations officials in Sarajevo who have criticized the plan, Mr. Major said he did not think it would imperil British forces.

But the absence of the chief U.S. ally in the operation underscored questions about the effectiveness of the airdrops in making a significant difference to desperate Bosnians. It also kept alive doubts about how the close ties between British and U.S. leaders will fare.

Mr. Clinton has approved plans to airdrop food and other relief supplies over remote sections of eastern Bosnia, where an estimate 100,000 people have not been reached by U.N. relief convoys.

But he has yet to announce the plan formally, saying yesterday that consultations were continuing.

Addressing the key questions -- the safety of U.S. pilots and the targeting of the aid -- Mr. Clinton said, "We know that if we are high enough to virtually assure the complete safety of the people who will participate in the airlift that a percentage of the packages we drop will be outside the more or less half-mile circle that we would be trying to hit.

"We also know that if we leaflet the area in advance . . . to whatever extent people need it, they'll be on the lookout for it and if they have to walk a mile instead of a half-mile for it, we think they will."

Reaction from Serbs continued to be mixed yesterday. Military officials in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, accused Washington of planning the airdrop as a prelude to Western military intervention.

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic called the plan "a dangerous mission designed to put new pressure on the Serbs," said the Belgrade-based Tanjug news agency. But Mr. Karadzic's commanders welcomed the plan if it meant that Serbs would receive some of the food.

The stronger U.S. role in the Balkans under Mr. Clinton marks a significant change in U.S. dealings with its European allies. The Bush administration was willing for Europe to assume the lead and, while expressing impatience at European inaction, avoided acting on its own.

Mr. Clinton, while avoiding actions that Europeans flatly oppose, has made it clear that he won't necessarily be guided by their views.

Despite the president's assertion that the "very special relationship" with Britain "is off to a very good start," there were evident strains over the subject of Northern Ireland.

In the campaign last year, Mr. Clinton suggested appointing a special envoy to Northern Ireland.

Asked whether the United States could play a constructive role, Mr. Major indicated that he would welcome help in explaining to Americans the peace process under way in British-ruled Northern Ireland and the significant changes made in the last decade. His response indicated that any other U.S. involvement would not be welcome.

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