Yugoslav army censures air-drop plan

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THE SERB-LED Yugoslav army yesterday condemned US plans to drop humanitarian aid by air to Muslim enclaves in Bosnia, but a Bosnian Serb leader said the idea was acceptable if the supplies excluded weapons and fuel.

The Yugoslav army's general staff issued a statement accusing the US of aiming 'to create conditions for deeper military intervention in the conflict in Bosnia, which would be directed against the Serbian population'. It added: 'American interference in our internal affairs has reached intolerable levels, culminating with this impudent imperial diktat.'

The statement was much harsher than remarks by the military commander of the Bosnian Serbs, General Ratko Mladic, who said: 'The only thing the Serbian side will not tolerate is the delivery of weapons or fuel under the guise of humanitarian aid.'

The objections of the Bosnian Serbs appeared to soften after a US official said supplies would be aimed at areas controlled by Serbs and Croats as well as at Muslim pockets along the Drina valley such as Cerska, Zepa, Srebrenica and Gorazde. 'I believe the White House will act responsibly and supply relief aid to all those who need it,' General Mladic said.

Experts doubt whether supplies dropped from US planes over Bosnia will reach those for whom they are intended and fear the consequences for those trying to get aid through on the ground. Even if the Bosnian Serbs are true to their word, other groups might shoot at the planes, trying to pin blame on the Serbs.

The US plan does not envisage fighter escorts for the transport planes but, as with aid flights into Sarajevo, will rely largely on the acquiescence of the warring sides. If flights are fired on, no reprisals are planned. The planes will stay high enough to avoid anti-aircraft fire, thereby sacrificing accuracy.

Although under orders to say nothing disparaging about the US plan, officials from Britain's Ministry of Defence and RAF officers are privately astonished by US pronouncements that the risks are small and that this is a 'humanitarian' rather than a 'combat' mission. The ground troops who ride in heavily armoured vehicles for their protection fear that the mission could be both. But President Bill Clinton said: 'There's no combat implications whatever. The risks are quite small.'

The US plan is understood to involve dropping supplies from 12,000 feet - above the ceiling for hand-held surface-to-air missiles. The minimum 'safe' height is 3,000-4,000 feet - out of small-arms range.

At 12,000 feet the aircraft would be invulnerable to most weapons available to the Bosnian sides. They would be far safer than those carrying aid into Sarajevo, as they would not have to land. The Sarajevo flights stay above 2,000 feet as long as possible to avoid the worst small-arms fire and then dive quickly into the airfield.

There are several methods of air-dropping supplies but they are more suitable for desert and remote mountains than for the intricate counterpane of Bosnia, where different ethnic groups - and dense building development - are frequently intermingled.

The RAF uses three main types of drop. First, the 'free drop' from 50 feet or less. Sacks of materials are thrown out of the back of the plane without parachutes. Second is the ultra-low-level drop, from about 50 feet, which uses a parachute to extract a pallet carrying goods from the aircraft. Third is the so-called 'one-ton drop', usually from 1,000 feet or more - the true 'parachute drop'. Accuracy is inversely proportional to the height from which the supplies are released.

The problems of dropping supplies were clearly demonstrated in Kurdistan in April 1991. The British method, with soldiers manhandling the supplies out of the back of the C-130 Hercules, is more accurate. The Americans allow the supplies to slide out under the force of gravity. On several occasions the release gear failed to work, resulting in four half-ton bundles landing several miles off-target. Once, the French failed to identify the target and dropped supplies to the Iraqi army. On other occasions supplies hit refugees on the ground, killing them.

(Photograph omitted)