Saving Sarajevo: Paris makes urgent call for air cover

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The Independent Online
FRANCE called urgently on the United Nations and Nato yesterday to provide air cover to protect UN peace- keepers in Bosnia from attack, the French Foreign Ministry announced. Reacting to 'deliberate and massive Serbian artillery attacks' on French peace-keepers in Sarajevo, the ministry said Paris had demanded that Nato 'accelerate the deployment of air cover' for the peace-keepers.

France called for the UN to take the necessary measures immediately to implement Security Council Resolution 836 permitting defensive air attacks and troop reinforcements.

A huge Nato air force has now assembled in Italy with ground-attack planes able to support UN ground troops as well as air-to-air fighters to enforce the no-fly zone over Bosnia. The 12 British Jaguar ground-attack planes are 'operational but not tasked' - in other words they have not received specific instructions from the UN to attack targets.

The Nato force can operate under UN Security Council Resolutions 824 and 836, meaning that, on a request from the UN Protection Force in Bosnia and under control of a UN Forward Air Controller, they can deliver weapons 'in support of the UN accomplishing its mission'.

'We need air cover for our troops,' Alain Juppe, France's Foreign Minister, said on Monday night. 'Nato has been working for weeks on operational planning for this force and we must act now.'

French units of the UN force in Sarajevo first came under artillery attack on Sunday, and yesterday heavy shelling was directed at a building in Sarajevo where French UN troops were working.

At the alliance's Brussels headquarters, a spokesman said that Mr Juppe's comments, combined with those of the commander of UN forces in Bosnia, Belgian Lieutenant-General Francis Briquemont, might help advance Nato operations in the skies over Bosnia. 'Political momentum might well lead to it happening sooner rather than later,' he said. However, in the absence of orders from the UN, there is still no indication of when operations will begin, the spokesman added.

Another official added that 'it could happen quite quickly'. He called Mr Juppe's comments 'slightly surprising' and denied there had been any friction between the alliance and the UN over the issue. The time- lag could result from a desire not to upset the political balance in Geneva, where talks on Bosnia are taking place, rather than just delays in getting forward air controllers into place in Bosnia.

Nato planes which have assembled in Italy are suitable for attacking Serbian artillery positions. The British Jaguars, for example, carry rockets, 30mm cannon and bombs - most likely cluster bombs distributing hundreds of bomblets to rake the artillery positions. Such tactics could be very effective at first and used selectively. But even if the ordnance is delivered accurately, one in 10 of the bomblets will fail to explode, creating later hazards for civilians. And, as a top Nato commander says, 'by the second or third day if you found an artillery piece, you'd find it in a churchyard, next to a mosque'.

According to the Nato commander the ground-attack planes could be called on to destroy local forces 'upon incursion or attack in the safe areas or on attack of the UN force as it goes about its humanitarian mission'. Although there has been much criticism of the limitations placed on the Nato aircraft and the irony of being able to respond to attacks on the UN troops but not to attacks on those whom the UN is supposed to be protecting, it is very much a matter of interpretation.