TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Wailing air-raid sirens and airborne confrontations between NATO and Yugoslav forces have spilled over into northeastern Bosnia, resurrecting the shrill noises of war after three years of peace and stirring fears among U.S. peacekeepers that they are handy targets for retaliation.
NATO pilots enforcing a "no-fly" zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina have swiftly shot down or chased away intruding Yugoslav aircraft, but U.S. soldiers patrolling Serb-held towns and villages of eastern Bosnia said Sunday that they are bracing for attacks by Bosnian Serb extremists to avenge NATO's pounding of fellow Serbs in neighboring Yugoslavia.
"The anger and rage is going to spill out of Yugoslavia into Bosnia. I fear there will be people shooting at us soon," said Pvt. Eric Witten of Chanaute, Kan., a military police officer with the U.S.-led Stabilization Force for Bosnia, SFOR. "They're angry because we are part of NATO and NATO is killing their brothers."
In anticipation of retaliatory strikes by Yugoslav forces or their allies in Serb-held areas of Bosnia, NATO peacekeepers here have hunkered down under highly restrictive "force-protection measures" to avoid suffering casualties.
Officials at the Eagle Base that is home to 11,000 SFOR troops in the Tuzla area--6,200 of them American--declined to speculate why Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, besieged by NATO at home over his war in separatist Kosovo province, would risk another front with NATO in Bosnia.
But soldiers and the Bosnian civilians they are protecting suspect that Milosevic is trying to inflict U.S. casualties and thereby weaken American public support for the Bosnian mission and a potential ground-force intervention by NATO to halt the Yugoslav killing and "ethnic cleansing" of Albanians in Kosovo.
Milosevic may be hoping that his air forces can rocket the Eagle Base during the illegal incursions or lure U.S. troops into the heavily mined areas where two Yugoslav MIGs were shot down by NATO pilots Friday.
Military crash investigators found the wreckage of one of the downed MIG-29s on Saturday, confirming that it was armed with air-to-air missiles. The location of the other jet was pinpointed Sunday, but no details of the second site were disclosed except that there was no trace of the Yugoslav pilot.
In the northwestern Serbian stronghold of Banja Luka, Bosnian Serb nationalists celebrated NATO's loss a day earlier of a U.S. F-117A Stealth fighter over Yugoslavia. Carloads of supporters of the hard-line Bosnian Serb leadership waved flags and honked horns in jubilation over what Yugoslav Serbs have presented as their triumph in shooting down the pride of the U.S. Air Force. The Pentagon and NATO would not comment Sunday on what brought down the jet.
Bosnian Serb radio reported that an airplane and a helicopter had crashed in northeastern Bosnia early Sunday, and other local media quoted witnesses saying they could hear a predawn dogfight. SFOR officials, however, said they had no confirmation of new airspace violations or engagements.
Speaking of SFOR's determination to persevere in its peacekeeping mission despite the intrusions, Maj. Tom Evans said, "We operate with robust rules of engagement and are prepared to defend ourselves and have the means and capability to do that."
Patrols have been reduced since NATO's bombardment of Yugoslavia began five days ago, and most peacekeeping troops have been confined to base with suspension of recreation, weekend furloughs and hot meals.
Troops say the tense but stable peace that has prevailed in Bosnia since Western forces were deployed here to enforce the 1995 peace agreement brokered in Dayton, Ohio, had already been weakening in the days leading up to the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia--a campaign aimed at forcing Milosevic to agree to a Dayton-like accord for Kosovo.
Bosnian Serb political leaders have been boycotting Bosnia's government institutions since a March 5 ruling by Western administrators to nullify the presidency of hard-liner Nikola Poplasen. They have been even more outraged by a decision of the International Arbitration Board established under Dayton to remove the flash-point town of Brcko from exclusive Serbian control.
New fissures have also appeared between the nominally allied Muslims and Croats in the areas they jointly control in divided Bosnia. A senior Croatian official, Deputy Interior Minister Jozo Leutar, died Sunday from head injuries received during a March 16 bomb attack that many in Sarajevo fear was carried out by Muslim extremists.
"If we weren't here, they'd go right back at it," Sgt. Anthony Camacho, a soldier from Seal Beach, Calif., who has spent 14 months in Bosnia, said of the Serbs, Muslims and Croats who still live in segregated communities throughout Bosnia. "We hope that changes eventually, but who knows how long it's going to take."