Bosnian Serbs deploy anti-aircraft missiles: Army determined to stop aid flights into Tuzla and to respond to threat of air strikes

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The Independent Online
THE Bosnian Serb military has deployed medium-range surface-to-air missiles along the front line near Tuzla, a move that could turn any attempt to use the Muslim-held city's airport for humanitarian aid deliveries into a game of Russian roulette.

According to Bosnian Serb military forces and UN officials, the Serbs have moved at least two mobile launchers with six SA-6 missiles from the northern Bosnian town of Banja Luka to areas around Doboj, a Serbian stronghold less than 30 miles north-west of Tuzla. In one case, the missiles were deployed in broad daylight in full view of United Nations personnel.

Without specifically mentioning the deployment of the missiles, Lieutenant-Colonel Milovan Milutinovic, the spokesman of the Bosnian Serb army's 1st Krajina Corps in Banja Luka, said: 'We control this air and no one should forget that we have modern technology to detect any flying objects and we also have modern means to shoot down any plane. We will not allow planes to land at Tuzla airport.'

The Bosnian Serb authorities have consistently refused international requests to reopen the airport to humanitarian flights, leading Nato to threaten the use of air strikes to force the Serbs into relenting. The Serbs have agreed to meet other international demands and have allowed the rotation of UN troops in the eastern Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. The first contingent of Dutch troops arrived in the enclave yesterday to replace a beleaguered company of UN Canadian soldiers.

But on the question of the Tuzla airport the Serbs have stood firm. On Monday, the Bosnian Serb army command declared a general mobilisation in Serb-held areas of Bosnia because of what it said was the international community's decision to 'back the (Bosnian) Muslims in their war option'. An army statement said it had taken steps which 'would lead to a successful end to the war'.

The Serbs expect an offensive this spring by the mainly Muslim Bosnian army. They are worried by the Muslims' improved efficiency in the field and are convinced that the Muslims have been in part buoyed up by the Western threats of air raids. With the deployment of the SA-6 missiles, Nato air strikes against Serbian positions around Tuzla would not only be questionable but would also be dangerous for Nato pilots and deadly for any humanitarian airlifts.

According to Paul Beaver of Jane's Defence Weekly, the missiles are not foolproof but 'they are one of the elements Nato pilots would be most worried about'.

The former Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) was estimated to have had 20 SA-6 mobile launchers and 60 reloads, a total of 80 missiles. After the Serb-Croat war ended in 1991, the JNA pulled back into Bosnia and when it later withdrew it left much of its equipment behind for the Bosnian Serbs. Whether SA- 6 missiles were left in Banja Luka, where there is a missile enhancement factory, or whether they were recently sent to Bosnia by the army of the rump Yugoslavia, composed of troops from Serbia and Montenegro, is unclear.

The rump Yugoslav army says it has no role in the Bosnian war and vehemently denies reports that it has been sending equipment and troops to help the Bosnian Serbs. But military experts in Belgrade say that air defence detection systems, which would be needed to provide advance warning of an impending air strike, are based in Serbia proper. The Yugoslav army would therefore have to be involved in the use of missiles against Nato planes.

Although diplomats say there is no hard evidence that Serbia is sending rump Yugoslav army troops to Bosnia, Belgrade is helping to mobilise Serbian refugees to help fill the Bosnian Serb army ranks. The Bosnian Serb army claims that the refugees are deserters. Sources in the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia say that, despite official assurances to the United Nations that it will protect the refugees, a number of Serbian refugees will have to return to Bosnia to replace frontline units and relieve some of the refugee burden on Serbia. Yesterday the UN High Commissioner for Refugees protested to Belgrade against the refugee mobilisation.

Neighbouring Croatia has been playing a similar game with Bosnian-Croat refugees. Croatia has also been sending regular Croatian army troops to bolster Bosnian-Croat HVO forces, which have been steadily losing ground to the Muslims in central Bosnia. The UN estimates that Croatia has deployed between 3,000 and 5,000 Croatian soldiers, the equivalent of three brigades, to fight in Bosnia, while the Clinton administration says there could be up to 10,000 Croatian army regulars in Bosnia.