Battle for Bihac

A report by Alan Warnes.

DURING THE FIRST half of November, the Bosnian Army’s 5th Corps, with the aid of the Bosnian Croats, broke out of the pocket of Bihac, a designated UN ‘safe area’, in northwestern Bosnia and seized 100 square miles (260km2) of land from the Serbs.

Until March 1994 both the Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims were enemies; it is alleged that their alliance was forged by the OA. The US, in effect, was involved in the war on the Muslim side, providing satellite intelligence and tactical operations training.

On November 18, in retaliation for repeated attacks from the Bosnian Army, two Serbian AF Orao jets bombed the 5th Corps headquarters within the UN-designated safe area of Bihac, one of the six UN safe areas; the others being Gorazde, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Tuzla and Zepa which are essentially heavy weapons exclusion zones.

The Oraos, which are believed to have dropped napalm and duster-bombs, took-off from nearby Udbina air-base in Krajina, the Serbian-held enclave in Croatia — four Galebs from the same airfield were shot down in late February.

Udbina is in an area claimed by the Serbs as part of their ‘state’ of Krajina; the Krajina Serbs having now joined forces with the renegade Muslim leader Fikret Abdic in the counter-offensive against the Bosnian Government. On November 19, a further attack by two Serbian AF Oraos on the ammunition factory in Cazin — a settlement 10 miles (I6kms) north of the safe area — saw one of them crashing into an apartment building, having dipped a chimney on its approach, killing the pilot and injuring nine civilians. Records show that the pilot belonged to the Yugoslav AF and lived in Serbia. This second attack came as the UN Security Council was meeting in New York to vote unanimously for a NATO attack on Serb targets in Croatia — a move backed by the Croatian Government.

At 10.30am (GMT) on November 21, three days after the initial Serbian attacks, NATO finally reacted — launching its biggest raid to date. Thirty jets from five bases in Italy embarked on a single-wave strike against the Udbina airbase. The raid lasted tor two hours and involved: USMC F/A-18Ds (VMFA[AW]-332); USAF F-l5Es (48th FW), F-16Cs (31st FW) and EF-lllAs (27th FW) all from Aviano; RAF Jaguars (Coltishall Wing) from Gioia del Colle; French AF Jaguars (EC 11) and Mirage FICRs (EC 30) from Istrana, Mirage 2000Cs (EC 5) from Cervia; and Dutch AF F-l 6As (1 st FW) from Villafranca.

The EF-111s were used to jam Serbian SA-2 and SA-6 missile radars, allowing the attacking aircraft to strike. The USAF F-15Es dropped laser-guided bombs and the USMC F/A-18Ds used HARM anti-radar missiles to suppress missiles and anti-aircraft weaponry. Four French AF Jaguars, with RAF Jaguars and Dutch AF F-16s bombed the airfield and air cover was provided by ten USAF F-16s and two French AF Mirage 2000Cs. Photo reconnaissance of the airfield was the responsibility of French AF Mirage FICRs and Dutch F-l6s.

The aim of the operation was ‘to hit large chunks of Tarmac’ at the single runway airfield and to destroy SAM-6 missile and anti-aircraft sites. UN Commanders in Bosnia, who had requested the strike, asked specifically that no Serb aircraft on the ground, which were parked near a small village on the perimeter of the airfield, should be hit, in order to minimise the loss of life.

Their objective was to change behaviour, not to destroy the military capability. All the NATO aircraft returned unscathed, and TV pictures showed that the bombs had hit the runway; although it is doubtful that the airfield will be out of commission for long.

Twenty-four hours later it was evident that the raid had failed in its mission to deter a Serb assault on Bihac, as ground troops continued to advance. Further air strikes were offered by NATO to protect the 1,200 Bangladeshi UN soldiers which were trapped in Bihac by the Serbian assault, but were turned down by UNPROFOR.

The situation deteriorated on November 23 when two Royal Navy 800 Sqn Sea Harrier were targeted by SAM-2 missiles, fired from the Serb garrison town of Otoka. The missiles missed their targets by 2 miles (3km) and exploded at about 35,000ft (10,668m). Both Sea Harriers had been on an combat air patrol (CAP) when the incident happened and returned safely to the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible.

NATO responded the following morning by sending 20 aircraft to attack the SAM-2 site at Otoka 15 miles (24km) northeast of Bihac. En-route, the NATO aircraft were locked onto by two other SAM-2 sites at Bosanka Krupa and at Dvor, just over the Croatian border in Serbian Krajina, which were then bombed by four 48th FW F-15Es in self-defence. The 20 aircraft returned to make a second strike on Otoka when reconnaissance photographs showed that although the radars had been hit, the missiles were still operational.

Later, Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb Leader, was to tell the UN Commander in Bosnia, Lt Gen Sir Michael Rose, «don’t mess around with us — should you attack from the air or in any other way, it means all-out war. I could not be more serious». Immediately all 24,000 UN troops in Bosnia were put on alert, with NATO leaders discussing the possibility of withdrawing peacekeeping forces from Bosnia and Croatia. Serb forces surrounded UN troops guarding several collection sites for heavy weapons — artillery and tanks — in Sarajevo, in effect holding 250 French, Ukrainian and other peacekeepers hostage against the threat of further NATO air strikes.

In Croatia there were suggestions that the country’s forces might join the fighting against the Serbs should Bihac fall, which in turn could see Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia link up, making the situation evolve into a wider conflict. The situation was getting out of control and the US proposed setting up a weapons exclusion zone around Bihac, with NATO backing it up, but NATO ambassadors could not agree and it was referred bock to national capitals where the idea was rejected.

Instead there was a climb-down when it was reiterated that the alliance’s policy was to use air strikes to protect UN troops and for no wider purpose. Then on November 25 when the Serbs first incursion into the safe area occurred, the UN suggested that the safe area could be redefined and in effect they and NATO were booking off. The Serbs have now seized about 25% of the existing safe area and if the UN allow Bihac to fall into Serbian hands then there could be problems with the other six so called safe areas.

The credibility of NATO during the first real test in its 45-year existence is now in serious doubt.

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