U.S. has its eyes and ears in Bosnia

March 06, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- As dusk fell over a Serbian-held slope overlooking this city, a U.S. Marine Corps officer poked among the hillside artillery nests to decide for himself whether, as United Nations officials were claiming, all rebel guns had been withdrawn in compliance with a NATO order.

A few days earlier, a U.S. Navy pilot passed through this Bosnian capital on a mission to scope out the effectiveness of the nightly U.S. humanitarian aid drops.

Last year, at the height of a volatile standoff between U.N.-escorted relief workers and Serbian gunmen over access to the besieged enclave of Srebrenica, two U.S. Army officers were found to be deployed there when aid workers finally pushed their way in.

Although the official U.S. position holds that no American ground forces should be sent to Bosnia, escalating U.S. involvement in the conflict gripping this republic is bringing more and more American military men closer and closer to the fighting.

Officials at the Pentagon and at U.S. European Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, acknowledge that 23 U.S. officers are assigned to posts in Bosnia, and the number of soldiers working elsewhere on operations directed at the former Yugoslavia has soared to more than 2,000 over the last year.

But the official figures seem grossly understated in comparison with the forces visible on the ground.

On the last Saturday afternoon in February, an American reporter counted 30 U.S. troops in the coffee shop at Split airport, a transit point for U.N. operations in Bosnia and a relief staging area where European Command officials claim only 11 U.S. cargo handlers are at work.

Seven U.S. Army officers were encountered on a single flight from Sarajevo to Zagreb in November, belying what was then a routine claim by Americans that they were one of less than a handful of officers seconded from NATO.

On the rural Bosnian roads traversed by aid convoys, outside the offices of Bosnian politicians and military kingpins involved in the conflict, and at U.N. listening posts around this republic that has been torn by ethnic strife for two years, U.S. forces are present nowadays.

Nonmilitary Americans are also increasingly visible in Bosnia. One Western aid agency is host to a number of purported American volunteers who have been spotted by journalists working in other capacities in other global hot spots, such as Central America, Afghanistan and the Middle East, presumably for military intelligence services or the CIA.

U.N. officials here and U.S. military sources in Washington concede that an unspecified number of Americans, presumably intelligence gatherers, have been traveling throughout Bosnia to provide the information needed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to make decisions about future U.S. involvement.

Marine Lt. Col. Mitchell Triplett, the senior U.S. liaison officer at U.N. forward headquarters here, declined to discuss what Americans are doing in Bosnia, except to say they coordinate the U.S. roles in operations Provide Promise and Deny Flight.

Provide Promise parachutes aid to isolated Bosnian communities; Deny Flight monitors compliance with the no-fly zone that the United Nations has imposed over Bosnia.

Altogether, the United States has "a little over 2,000" military men and women assigned to missions in former Yugoslav republics or on humanitarian operations aimed at assisting Balkan war victims, said Cmdr. Ron Morse, public affairs officer at the U.S. European Command.

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