Hungry Bosnians report trouble locating airdropped U.S. relief Military says effort was successful

March 02, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

FRANKFURT-AM-MAIN, Germany -- The U.S. military declared the first humanitarian airdrop into Bosnia-Herzegovina a success, but the intended recipients did not seem to be able to find the supplies parachuted in to them.

By late yesterday there was only one report that besieged Bosnians had found any of the 30 pallets.

A second airdrop was made last night.

Each of three C-130 Hercules dropped nine pallets of Army Meals-Ready-to-Eat food packets and one skid of medical supplies, a cargo of about seven tons. A total of 20,736 MREs were dropped.

Brig. Gen. Donald E. Loranger Jr., commander of the Rhein-Main U.S. Air Base where the relief flights originated, said it was difficult to say how accurate the drops had been.

"We have no one on the ground to report directly to us," the general said.

He nonetheless declared the drop a success.

Also calling it a success was Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who said that many parcels landed in clear areas near the targeted Muslim enclave of Cerska.

"Based on information from national technical means, we can confirm that many of the bundles landed in clear areas within the identified drop zone, which is in the area of Cerska. We believe the other bundles landed in or near the drop zone, but are unable to confirm exact landing points."

"National technical means" usually refers to satellite or aircraft surveillance.

But a press aide for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Zagreb said, "We have no reports from the ground."

BBC radio reporting from Sarajevo said ham radio in Cerska, the intended target, said there were no signs of parcels, no signs of food.

As night fell, one package had been reported found by Muslims some 20 miles northwest of Cerska, the Bosnian news agency BH Press said, quoting a ham radio report.

U.N. and U.S. military sources said satellites had located nine of the crates. They said that grid references for at least four had been given to the U.N. peacekeeping force so they could be passed to the Bosnian government.

One source said a major difficulty for those planning the operation was lack of reliable information from on the ground about the position of front lines or the best target area to chose.

A Serbian offensive launched Sunday was said to have cut the Cerska enclave in half. Relief aid intended for Muslims in Cerska may have fallen behind Serbian lines, the Croatian press office said.

Gen. Ratko Mladic, commander of Serbian forces in Bosnia, said some of the aid landed in Serbian-held areas, "where it was not intended."

Hundreds were reported killed in the fighting in and around Cerska.

"Cerska is burning . . . they are attacking from all sides, on all lines," said Ismet Mustafic, a ham radio operator in Cerska, adding that government forces would try to hold open a corridor toward Sarajevo so people could escape.

This first airdrop flight left the Rhein-Main Air Base late Sunday night and returned without incident about six hours later. Four planes were scheduled. One did not make the trip because of a problem with its navigational system.

The pilot who led the airdrop said, "My heart kinda skipped a beat after we got the load cleared.

"After the drop, I felt real good about doing it," said Capt. Peter Schweyher of Albertson, N.Y. "I kinda back the United States about this. It is an important thing we're doing, bringing food to the people who need it the most."

The Air Force was taking no chances with this mission. The unarmed transport planes flew high enough to avoid anti-aircraft or small arms fire from the ground. They were not fired on, or even "painted" with radar.

Crew members aboard one of the planes saw gunfire far off the drop zone, near a city, but unrelated to the flight, Captain Schweyher said.

No fighter planes provided air cover, according to General Loranger, who commands the 435th Airlift Wing at Rhein-Main.

But combat aircraft aboard the carrier John F. Kennedy patrolling in the Adriatic are only minutes away. Electronic surveillance planes from the Kennedy tracked the C-130 flights.

Citing security reasons, neither the general nor the aircrew members would say at what altitude the planes flew or exactly where the drop went in, or even when they took off.

They would not even identify Cerska as the intended target.

The Rhein-Main base is in a heightened state of security alert because of the flights, in the wake of the bombing at the World Trade Center in New York City.

In an effort to avoid the appearance of picking sides, President Clinton's original proposal for a humanitarian air drop to hungry Muslims and Croats in Bosnia was expanded to include Serbs.

The cargoes dropped Sunday night were inspected by U.N. relief officials and representatives of the warring sides, two Serbs, a Croat and a Muslim, to dispel any suspicions that weapons might be dropped with the food and medical supplies.

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