US `secretly supplying weapons to Bosnia'

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UNITED NATIONS commanders in Bosnia suspect that the United States is engaged in a clandestine operation to supply weapons to the Bosnian army in violation of an international arms embargo.

The UN is standing by reports from its peace-keepers in Bosnia that on four separate occasions this month they spotted large military transport aircraft in northern Bosnia believed to be dropping or delivering high- tech weaponry to the Bosnian army in the airforce base of West Tuzla. Nato have questioned the truth of the claim, causing the most serious rift so far between the British and French-led UN operation and Nato.

The Secretary-General of Nato, Willy Claes, is expected to issue a statement within the next 48 hours following investigations into a report by Lieutenant- General Bertrand de Lapresle, the commander of UN forces in the former Yugoslavia, saying that on 10, 12 and 16 February his officers on the ground spotted "transport-type aircraft of C130 or like size" in the vicinity of Tuzla air base. Two more sightings have been reported since then.

Speculation among senior UN officials is that the US, either directly or through a proxy such as Turkey, has organised the flights. The Clinton administration is under heavy pressure from Congress to force the lifting of the UN arms embargo. The simplest way to head off that pressure would be to ensure that the Bosnian army is so well supplied that it does not need the embargo to be lifted.

Speculation within the UN is that the mysterious aircraft gave Nato AWACs monitoring the region a "friendly" signal, or that the Central Intelligence Agency, knowing when there would be a gap in Nato surveillance, organised the air drop.

There was franctic activity in the State Deaprtment and National Security Council departments dealing with Bosnia last week and the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, Richard Holbrooke, visited Turkey earlier in the week. A senior US official yesterday denied knowledge of the reported flights and said that if they existed they were not by US aircraft. But he said the US has no interest in maintaining the arms embargo.

If the CIA is using a proxy, Nato officials conceded, Turkey would be the obvious choice. It has C130 aircraft within range of Tuzla and is part of Nato. A Western military source said yesterday: "If the US is supplying the Bosnia government, no one [in Nato] knows but then the US wouldn't tell. It would have to be deniable but if it comes out quite a few people will walk out. It would be so embarrassing."

A UN withdrawal from former Yugoslavia is now regarded as inevitable in Washington. The administration has concluded it will have to send thousands of troops to cover the retreat. Analysts expect the expulsion of the UN from Croatia to lead to full- scale war in the Balkans. The resupply of the Bosnian army with sophisticated weapons would at least give Bosnia a chance of protecting some of its territory.