Nato jets blast Serb air base in Croatia

RAF and French aircraft spearhead big air strike in retaliation for att acks on Bihac

Nato launched by far the biggest air attack in its 45-year history against the rebel Serbs' Udbina airbase in Croatia at noon yesterday. The strike by 30 aircraft from the US, Britain, France and the Netherlands was the first against Serbs in Croatia and dwarfed earlier attacks against the Bosnian Serbs.

Reconnaissance flights before dark last night showed the single runway cut in five places.

On Saturday, after Serb jets from Udbina bombed the Muslim-controlled Bihac enclave for the second consecutive day, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution authorising Nato to strike the airport in the Serb-held Krajina enclave.

Although four nations were involved in yesterday's raid, the British and French dropped all the bombs. Nato sources said they had aimed to cut the runway and taxi-ways and not to attack the 20 or so Serb aircraft at the airfield.

Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, told the Commons the UN Special Representative, Yasushi Akashi, had requested the strike.

Later, Nato said 50 aircraft had been involved - 30 in the attack itself and 20 in support. Two British Jaguar strike aircraft and two reconnaissance aircraft, plus a Tristar tanker, took part in the mission.

Bosnian Serbs, Serbs from Krajina and breakaway Bosnian Muslims under the rebel leader Fikret Abdic are all converging in a three-pronged offensive on the isolated Bosnian government enclave which is a UN ``safe area''.

Mr Akashi said: ``I hope that today's Nato air attack will deter any further attack on the Bihac safe area and its surroundings, or on Unprofor personnel within Bihac. We're in a very sensitive and delicate situation. If we don't act, the UN could be considered incompetent and spineless.'' Mr Akashi, who spoke by telephone to Milan Martic, the Krajina Serb leader, after the Nato raid, reported that Mr Martic said he would ``do his utmost to restrain any emotional reaction''.

The British government acceded to international pressure for reprisals against the Serbs after hectic consultations over the weekend in which the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, authorised Britain's envoy to the UN, Sir David Hannay, to back the Security Council resolution.

But British policy has not been altered in favour of greater military intervention in the former Yugoslavia. The Bihac battle was seen in London as a useful opportunity for concerted action to show that the United States and its European allies could still act in unison after their recent dispute over the UN arms embargo.

President Bill Clinton voiced his support for the air strikes yesterday, telling reporters in Washington that it was ``the right thing to do''.

Speaking shortly after talks in the White House with Mr Clinton, the Nato Secretary-General, Willy Claes, said the Nato mission was ``absolutely necessary to give a clear and a strong signal''.

Officials in London were at pains to point out the limited aims and carefully designated nature of the raid. It was privately agreed between Britain and France that the action would serve a mainly symbolic purpose. Both nations are reviewing their commitment to the UN peace-keeping force in the former Yugoslavia after the US unilaterally decided it would no longer enforce the UN ban on arms shipments to the Bosnian government.

The raid also brought support from Russia, which condemned the American arms embargo policy but approved of the raid because of its strictly defined objective.

Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, now the commander of UN forces in Bosnia, received the Queen's Gallantry Medal in recognition of his role in the May 1980 Iranian embassy siege, when he commanded the SAS. The Ministry of Defence did not announce the award until

yesterday.

(Map omitted)

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