U.S. says NATO dogfight justified

WASHINGTON -- NATO's successful air action against warplanes believed to have belonged to the Bosnian Serbs, violating a ban on military flights over Bosnia-Herzegovina, was intended to display alliance resolve and prevent the war from entering a dangerous new phase, U.S. officials said Monday.

U.S. President Bill Clinton said the dogfight, in which two U.S. F-16 Fighting Falcons downed four of six Yugoslav-manufactured Galeb jet fighters over Bosnia-Herzegovina, was aimed at curbing the prospect of an air war.


U.S. Adm. Jeremy Boorda, commander of the NATO forces in Southern Europe, said the warplanes, which NATO believes belonged to the Bosnian Serbs, apparently had executed a bombing mission just before they were attacked.

The United Nations nearly one year ago banned the flight of all Serb military aircraft over Bosnia-Herzegovina and tasked NATO with shooting down any violators. The dogfight Monday is the first time NATO has engaged in military action since its inception after World War II.

Although U.N. observers have observed hundreds of violations of the 'no-fly zone' by Serb helicopters and military transport aircraft, the Serbs had not attempted to attack Bosnia-Herzegovina by air.

Clinton said the NATO attack was triggered by the severity of the violation.


'Those are much more serious because of the capacity they have to engage in military conduct from the air,' Clinton told reporters before departing for Chicago and Pittsburgh. 'The mandate from the U.N. was to enforce the no-fly zone to eliminate the prospect that the war could be carried into the air.'

Vice President Al Gore said the NATO action may 'improve the prospects for peace' by showing the no-fly zone is 'not to be trifled with.' Gore made the remarks at the start of a meeting with British Prime Minister John Major, who said London also approved of the action.

The State Department, when asked whether Serbs may be testing NATO's resolve, said the alliance passed with flying colors.

'If it was a test, I think NATO passed with flying colors,' State Department spokesman Michael McCurry said. 'It's a signal to the parties that the alliance and the West intend to bring this crisis to an end.'

McCurry said Clinton administration experts have concluded the rationale behind the Serb action 'ranged from stupidity to a willingness to test the alliance.'

Following the attack, U.S. officials said, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering met with Russian officials in Moscow to explain the action.


The Russians told Pickering they felt NATO's sortie was entirely justified since the Serbs were blatantly violating a U.N. mandate, they said.

The Clinton administration has bent over backwards to include Russia, which has historical ties to the Serbs, on any decisions relating to the Balkan war.

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