BRUSSELS — Adding a new dimension to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, U.S. Air Force planes early Monday attacked six Bosnian Serb aircraft, shooting down four of them after they had reportedly bombed targets in government-controlled areas of the country.
According to officials at NATO headquarters here, the attack was carried out by two U.S. F-16 planes enforcing a U.N.-imposed "no-fly" zone, which has been in effect over Bosnia since October, 1992.
"The pilots issued, in accordance with their rules of engagement, two 'land or be engaged' orders to the aircraft which ignored them," declared a North Atlantic Treaty Organization statement. "The NATO (F-16s) engaged the planes, shooting down four of them."
At a news conference later in the day at NATO's Southern European headquarters in Naples, Italy, U.S. Adm. Jeremy Boorda cited unconfirmed reports that just prior to the F-16s' attack, the Serbian planes had dropped as many as eight bombs, hitting a hospital and a storage facility.
The NATO attack marks a series of important firsts:
* After seemingly endless diplomatic activity to end the messy Balkans war, Monday's attack has for the first time brought Western military power to bear in Bosnia.
* After more than 1,000 previous Serbian violations of the "no-fly" zone, NATO aircraft used force for the first time to enforce the 16-month-old U.N. ban.
* For the first time in its 44-year history, NATO forces were engaged in offensive military action.
"We have to make clear that NATO has a new task of ensuring stability and peacekeeping within the United Nations framework," NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner said Monday evening.
The incident reportedly occurred over Bosnian government-controlled areas in the center of the republic, after the Bosnian Serb craft took off from the city of Banja Luka, about 80 miles northwest of Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo.
An alliance spokesman said the F-16s returned safely to their base at Aviano, Italy, but the fate of the Serbian aircraft crews was unknown.
Speaking to reporters as he departed the White House for a trip to Chicago and Pittsburgh, President Clinton stressed that Serbian planes had been warned before the attack. "Every attempt was made, to the best of my information, to avoid this encounter," he said.
British Prime Minister John Major, in the United States for talks with Clinton, was more forceful: "There was no reason for these planes to be there. They were there for hostile intent."
While Monday's attack has certainly altered the military equation of the Balkans war, it was not immediately clear exactly how it will affect efforts to end the conflict. Bosnian Serb forces were reported to have launched a fierce assault on the northern city of Tuzla after word spread that four of their aircraft had been downed.
Although Western news agencies in Tuzla reported heavy shelling late Monday morning, it remained unclear whether the NATO action would prompt a wide-scale intensification of assaults around the republic.
Some analysts expect NATO's action to have a deterrent effect on Bosnian Serb forces, who have been allowed to violate numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions with impunity, which has emboldened them to press on with their offensives.
Interviewed on German television Monday evening, Woerner supported this view. The incident involving the NATO attack "will not lead to an escalation but just the opposite," he said. "People will learn to respect NATO."
The downed planes were identified by NATO officials here as Soko G-4 Galeb attack aircraft and were believed to be part of the Bosnian Serb air force. The Super Galeb was designed as a trainer by the former Yugoslav government. But since the breakup of Yugoslavia began nearly three years ago, it has been used by Serbian forces in Slovenia in 1991 and in the bombardment of the Croatian port of Dubrovnik the following year.
The International Institute of Strategic Studies in London reports that Bosnian Serb forces have about 20 such aircraft. "They haven't been flying a great deal, and of course that reduces the performance of their pilots," noted Ken Petri, an air warfare specialist at the institute. "They were certainly no match for the F-16s."
Start to finish, NATO's first-ever attack lasted a total of 20 cold minutes.
The Serbian jets had barely gotten off the ground from Banja Luka when they were sighted and pursued, according to Boorda, who, as commander of Operation Deny Flight, has overall responsibility for enforcing the "no-fly" zone. Boorda told a news conference at his headquarters in Naples that the American jets were not fired upon. The American pilots did not see any of the pilots of the four destroyed planes eject, he said.
American military officials and diplomats, unable to fully explain why the Serbs launched an aerial raid in violation of NATO's "no-fly" zone, surmised that it may have been part of a concerted effort to test NATO's resolve.