Serbian aircraft outclassed by Nato operation

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The Independent Online
THE two aircraft that survived the Nato attack in Bosnia were tracked by radar heading by a circuitous route to the Bosnian Serb-held airbase at Banja Luka, according to Nato sources. The presumption is that this is where all six bombing planes came from - giving the lie to Serbian claims of puzzlement about the attack.

After the raid on Novi Travnik, the two aircraft escaped from the no-fly zone over Bosnia heading west into Croatian territory. Last night Nato's southern command in Naples, which controls operation 'Deny Flight', said they had been tracked north through Croatia, then intermittently east, and were last tracked, again intermittently, heading back to Banja Luka.

The Nato planes patrolling the sky over Bosnia yesterday morning had authority to engage warplanes flouting the no-fly zone, without further reference to the UN. But officials said that they had informed the UN Protection Force headquarters prior to downing four Jastreb J1 ground attack aircraft, apparently belonging to the Bosnian Serbs.

The Nato aircraft involved reported the Serbian planes attacking targets in the Muslim town of Novi Travnik just before they were intercepted. UN sources said the Serbian planes hit an armaments factory in the town, one of a handful of factories making ammunition, and possibly weapons, for the Bosnian government forces (BiH). The sources said that yesterday afternoon it was still burning fiercely. The British in Vitez also said they had reports of an earlier attack on Bugojno, another Muslim-held town, at 6.10am in which seven bombs were dropped. But they had not observed it themselves and could not confirm it.

The Jastrebs were outclassed by the F-16s and Nato airmen were surprised they dared to defy the Nato warnings. Although powered by Rolls-Royce Viper engines, and capable of up to 500 mph, they are ground attack planes, and carried no effective defensive armament.

A Nato Airborne Warning and Control Aircraft (Awacs), with a multinational crew, based at Geilenkirchen, was over the Adriatic when it spotted aircraft at about 6.30am (5.30am GMT) yesterday. At 6.31am it reported contact with aircraft, heading south, and summoned two US F-16 aircraft to intercept the planes that were clearly violating the UN no-fly zone being enforced by Nato planes. The lead F-16 reported visual contact, counting six planes, and at 6.35am the Awacs issued a warning to them. At 6.42am the lead F-16 warned them again. At 6.43am the F-16s received permission to engage the aircraft.

Nato's Commander Southern Europe, Admiral Jeremy Boorda, said Nato then 'referred' to Unprofor, but would not say who gave the order to fire. It is clear that authority to enforce 'Deny Flight' has been fully designated to Nato and the time taken to react shows the aircraft were ready to do so.

At 6.45am the lead aircraft of the pair fired its first air-to-air missile, downing one aircraft. The aircraft fired a second missile at 6.47am and a third a minute later. Two more F- 16s had been summoned and at 6.50am the lead aircraft fired a missile, downing a fourth Jastreb.

British troops in Vitez went to 'Amber Alert', donning helmets and minimising movement in case the Serbs reacted to the shooting down by bombarding the British base from their artillery positions on Mount Vlasic to the north-west. But a couple of hours later they reverted to normal and 'carried on with the day's work'.

The British yesterday opened up the small Muslim ghetto in Stari Vitez, the old centre of Vitez town where Muslims have been surrounded by Croats, who, in turn are surrounded by Muslims, since April. Fighting has closed the main street in Vitez, forcing aid convoys and others to drive round. The British said there was now free access and that they were trying to take in food and evacuate casualties.

(Photograph omitted)

Leading article, page 15

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