Although White House officials insisted no final decision on a humanitarian relief mission had been made, the US told Nato allies it would parachute supplies within a few days, alliance sources said in Brussels. The planes, operating from Germany and Italy, will be escorted by navy fighters flying from a US aircraft carrier.
At the start of the Oval Office meeting, President Clinton played down the dangers of the operation: 'There's no combat implications whatever.' Asked about the risk of US planes being shot at by anti-aircraft artillery, he said: 'We think the risks are quite small.' He rejected suggestions that the operation could draw the US into a deeper engagement.
The US has made clear it believes it has sufficient authority under previous UN resolutions to drop relief supplies and that its operations did not need to be under UN command. (Mr Boutros- Ghali has said such an operation would be welcome only if it were under UN command.) The Pentagon, which has opposed intervention in Bosnia, produced a plan for supplying the Bosnians after being pressed by the White House. Diplomats believe the US has warned Serbian leaders against responding militarily against its aircraft or UN troops in Sarajevo and elsewhere.
Under the air-drop scheme, supplies would be dropped from C-130 Hercules cargo planes flying at 5,000 to 10,000ft. This would put them beyond the range of heavy machine-guns but not of all anti-aircraft artillery or missiles. But if they operate from 10,000ft they could miss targets by up to 2.5 miles. There is also a danger that Serbian militia forces will try to capture the supplies for their own use or will assume the packages contain arms. An alternative would be to use MC-130 Combat Talons operating at high speed and low altitude.
During the election campaign last year Mr Clinton promised to be more active in protecting the Bosnians but so far he has done little. The delivery of relief supplies to the Bosnians, whatever its practical effectiveness, is seen by supporters of US intervention as an important symbolic step by President Clinton, showing he will not accept the present situation, in which Bosnian Muslim enclaves are being starved out.
Some foreign diplomats said the US plan might be short-lived, designed to put pressure on the Serbs to allow relief convoys through. It may involve no more than a few flights a day and last only a week or so until aid convoys begin to operate regularly.
One British official said: 'If the US wants to try to reach the parts others cannot reach - the Heineken approach - good luck to them.' Another added: 'Having encouraged the Americans to share our emphasis on humanitarian relief efforts, we can hardly turn around and tell them we don't like the way they propose to do this.'
Privately, however, British sources expressed concern that the air-drops should not lead to a de facto enforcement of the no-fly zone over Bosnia, a move which the Government has resisted because it would jeopardise peace- keepers on the ground. Such concerns were a main topic during a telephone conversation yesterday between John Major and President Francois Mitterrand of France, which, as a fellow contributor of peace-keepers on the ground in Bosnia, shares Britain's concern.
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