NATO'S decision to draw up additional options for air strikes against those responsible for the 'strangulation' of Sarajevo and other areas in Bosnia is a political signal, rather than the start of a new stage in operational planning.
As the latest North Atlantic Council communique makes clear, the Alliance has been ready to protect UN forces since 22 July. Any attack on UN troops - and there have been several - could be met by powerful air attacks from the 70-odd Nato planes based in Italy, and those plans are in place. But so far, the UN has not requested such assistance.
The new Nato resolution came as the Serbs launched attacks from the north and south of Sarajevo towards Zuc in the north and Mount Igman in the south. Bjelasnica mountain has fallen to the Serbs. Yesterday UN monitors were allowed to climb the mountain where they were surprised to find the Bosnian Serb military commander, General Ratko Mladic. It seemed doubful that he would be willing to listen to his political leaders, who have pledged to withdraw.
If the Serbs also capture Mount Igman, overlooking Sarajevo airfield, they will be able to direct artillery fire on to the city with great accuracy - and on to the airfield.
Monday night's decision authorises immediate preparations to be taken for use 'in the event that the strangulation of Sarajevo and other areas continues, including wide-scale interference with humanitarian assistance'. In that event, Nato can take 'stronger measures including air strikes against those responsible, Bosnian Serbs and others'.
The latest Nato announcement lays plans for support of the UN 'in performance of its overall mandate' - in other words, in reprisal for attacks on those the UN is supposed to be protecting in the so-called 'safe areas', as well as attacks on UN troops themselves.
The Nato measures 'will be under the authority of the UN Security Council and within the framework of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions . . . full co-operation will be carried out with the UN including appropriate arrangements between the Nato military authorities and Unprofor (the UN Protection force) and consultations with the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees).'
The most obvious targets for such attacks are Serb artillery positions around Sarajevo, where about 2,000 guns are believed to be deployed. The Serbs deployed their heavier guns with little thought of air opposition. One strike could be very effective, after which they might move their heavier artillery. The continued threat of air attack would make life very difficult for the Serbs, who now move with complete freedom.
Although Nato is committed to co- operation with the UNHCR, which controls aid operations in Bosnia, some argue that attacks on the local forces could impede the aid effort they are intended to help. The emphasis in the Nato communique on 'Bosnian Serbs and others' is crucial. Fighting between Muslims and Croats to the west of Sarajevo has impeded the flow of UN aid, and some comes through Serb territory to the east.
If the Bosnian Serbs are attacked, the flow of aid from that direction will be halted, while the effect on the routes through Croatia is uncertain. The two main UN routes from the coast, the northern, 'mountain road' and the much superior Mostar road pass through Croat and Muslim territory almost all the way to Sarajevo.
The threat of Serb reprisals against UN troops on these routes has probably been exaggerated. Any heavy artillery which opens fire is likely to be detected and neutralised very quickly.
The removal of the heaviest weapons - artillery and tanks - will remove much of the danger to UN troops operating in armoured vehicles. But the risk from mortars and snipers to the drivers of 'soft- skinned' aid vehicles and those not entitled to military protection will remain. This has led UN planners to favour the establishment of routes completely controlled by the UN.Reuse content