Clinton gives Bosnia drop go-ahead: Warring factions agree to attend meeting in New York as White House raises stakes by taking more active role in Balkans

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton gave the formal go-ahead yesterday for American forces to begin emergency parachute drops, perhaps as early as next Sunday, of food and medical supplies over parts of eastern Bosnia that land convoys have been unable to reach.

In a statement from the White House, the President emphasised that the drops were to be 'carried out strictly for humanitarian purposes. No combat aircraft will be used in this operation.' The missions will be co-ordinated with the United Nations. No other countries are expected to take part.

Defence officials said the flights would involve C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft based in Frankfurt. To minimise the danger of anti-aircraft gunfire the missions are likely to be at night with the packages dropped from an unusually high level of 10,000 feet.

Mr Clinton said: 'The war that has raged in Bosnia-Herzegovina over the last year has taken a staggering toll. Thousands have been killed or imprisoned, thousands more are at risk from hunger and exposure and more than 2 million people have been forced from their homes.' In comments later, the President said he hoped the flights would 'help create a somewhat better climate' for the Owen-Vance peace negotiations.

John Major, the Prime Minister, endorsed the plan shortly before leaving Washington after talks with Mr Clinton. While noting that British troops had long been protecting land convoys, he said that there were 'parts of Bosnia that we simply can't get to'. He said the President had taken a 'brave decision because it isn't technically easy to carry out'.

Pentagon sources indicated that the operation would be of 'short duration' and would involve about five flights a day. It would begin with the dropping over the region of about 600,000 leaflets, stating the humanitarian nature of the flights, warning against interference and alerting people to stand clear when the food pallets come down. 'We want people to know why and when we're coming,' one official noted.

Anxious to deflect criticism of seeming to favour Bonsians over Serbs, the President added that the 'priority for air deliveries will be determined without regard to ethnic or religious affiliation'. The leaflets will be printed in both Roman and Cyrillic scripts. Sources also said some drops were likely in areas controlled by Serbs.

There was some initial concern expressed on Capitol Hill that the mission may have hidden consequences for the US, eventually sucking it in to a wider military involvement in the region. Questions were raised, for instance, over the possibility of American pilots being shot down and captured in the area.

Senators and congressmen were briefed on the operation last night by the Secretary of Defence, Les Aspin, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell

Mr Clinton played down the dangers of the missions: 'Gen Powell believes that the risks are quite limited and not appreciably more than many training flights that our aviators do every year.'

In Sarajevo yesterday, Bosnia's Serbs accepted the US plans to begin an air-drop, while Serbian and Muslim leaders signalled some flexibility toward renewed peace talks.

Bosnian Serb military commanders ordered their troops not to shoot at the US planes or to 'by any means jeopardise' the flights.