Bosnia: Allied machine primed but may not fly

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BRUSSELS - Arrangements for Nato air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs are now in place. The chain of authorisation includes a stronger role for Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, than had originally been foreseen by the United States. But yesterday everybody seemed happy that 'air power in the service of diplomacy', as the US officials say, is ready to go.

After two weeks of discussions over US proposals, Monday's meeting of the alliance's North Atlantic Council - the 16 ambassadors in Brussels - spelt out exactly who gets asked what and when. The problem is that it looks awfully complicated and has raised fresh doubts about whether the alliance will ever act.

Three groups can ask for air strikes to be inititiated: a Nato member state, the United Nations or the Nato military authorities. The question then goes to the North Atlantic Council, which consists either of foreign ministers or of ambassadors in Brussels. They will take account of the negotiations in Geneva and the situation on the ground in Bosnia.

If they decide unanimously to go ahead, then the question goes to New York and Mr Boutros- Ghali. He said yesterday that he would consult the negotiators in Geneva, according to some reports, as well as the Security Council. His approval is required, at least for the first use of air strikes.

The strikes will be launched by Nato aircraft. But operational decisions will be made by General Jean Cot, the French officer in charge of Unprofor, and Admiral Jeremy Boorda, the American in charge of Nato's southern tier. Both can block a decision, which would then be referred back to Nato and the UN, according to alliance sources.

It was clear from the first that Unprofor would have to play a very important role. Britain, France, Spain, Canada and Belgium have troops on the ground and want to make sure they are protected. One of the principal results of the Nato meeting last week which set the ball rolling, was to ask the Nato military authorities to draw up operational assessments, targeting and command and control arrangements with Unprofor.

However, the role of Mr Boutros- Ghali was rather opaque. 'It was left hanging,' said an alliance source yesterday. A senior US official, briefing journalists last Thursday in Washington, was asked whether Mr Boutros- Ghali would have to approve air strikes. 'It may or may not mean that,' he said. It did.

Without this, it is unlikely that France would have accepted the deal. Britain and others also wanted assurances that action would be tied to the peace talks in Geneva.

The UN also made its feelings clear, as set out by Lord Owen in a news conference in Geneva last Thursday. 'If Nato was to go ahead without the support of the UN system,' he predicted, 'never again in the lifetime of this Secretary-General, and probably a lot longer, would Nato be asked in to help a UN operation.' A letter was fired off from New York. 'The United Nations Secretary-General made clear that he felt that he should authorise the first use of air power,' said an alliance source.

There is still uncertainty over whether the Secretary-General's green light is a once-and- for-all event, or whether he has to authorise each use of force. The United States says once is enough; alliance sources say that is not clear.

Nato sources insist that it is 'a two-way process' between the alliance and the UN. It has carved out a role for itself in the conflict, which it believes can help bring the suffering to an end. Washington has got what it wants - the ability to put pressure on the Bosnian Serbs.

The other Nato members also seemed happy enough. It is really the powers with troops on the ground, and especially France, that have pushed for the UN involvement, because they remain cautious about US intentions. It is the diplomacy they are interested in, rather than the air power, and they have now put a series of safeguards in place.

Will air strikes ever happen? There is a set of 'triggers' to decide upon action, though these are far from automatic. They relate to the safety of supply routes, the reconnection of energy and fuel supplies, and access for aid convoys. The allies in Brussels are consulting 'day to day', sources say. Ambassadors can meet within hours, if required. Somebody just has to push the button, to see if the machine starts.