Stepping up pressure on the defiant Bosnian Serbs, a U.S. Navy warship launched a battery of sophisticated Tomahawk cruise missiles late Sunday against the rebels' antiaircraft installations in northern Bosnia, NATO officials said.
Thirteen Tomahawks--expensive and precise weapons that are said to defy bad weather--were fired from the guided-missile cruiser Normandy in the Adriatic Sea toward the Bosnian Serb-held city of Banja Luka. The rebels' military command is based in the city, as are most of the antiaircraft missile systems that have been menacing North Atlantic Treaty Organization planes.
"That region had posed a serious threat to our air crews, and we hope this mission will eliminate that threat," Capt. Mark Van Dyke said at NATO's Southern Command headquarters in Naples, Italy.
In June, Air Force Capt. Scott F. O'Grady was shot down by a Bosnian Serb missile near Banja Luka while he was on a NATO mission over Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was rescued nearly a week later.
A NATO spokesman in Naples said it would take several hours to accurately assess the damage inflicted by the missiles.
But outraged Bosnian Serb officials claimed early today that the missiles slammed into water and power plants and killed or wounded a large number of people. The reports could not be immediately verified.
The use of the Tomahawks for the first time in NATO's 12-day air campaign against the Bosnian Serbs reflected NATO commanders' frustration at having missed targets or aborted raids because of the fog and clouds that have socked in the Balkans lately. The $1-million Tomahawk, a premier weapon in the Navy's arsenal, is equipped with satellite technology that makes it all-weather accurate while sparing pilots the risk of being shot down.
Knocking out the integrated air-defense system around Banja Luka could clear the way for more frequent bombing runs on a growing list of targets.
Antiaircraft radar and missile installations were among the first targets hit when NATO and the United Nations began their air campaign against the Bosnian Serbs on Aug. 30 in retaliation for the lethal shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace. But the Bosnian Serb army had managed to repair most of the initial damage, U.S. and U.N. sources said.
The Tomahawk attack came as U.N. officials reported no progress in forcing the Bosnian Serbs to withdraw their heavy weapons from a 12 1/2-mile exclusion zone around this besieged capital, a demand that the Western alliance says must be met before the air war is called off.
It followed a meeting in Serbia between Bosnian Serb army commander Gen. Ratko Mladic and French Gen. Bernard Janvier, the commander of U.N. forces in the Balkans, apparently to try to work out an agreement on the weapons. The results of the meeting were not announced.
Janvier has been known to be willing to compromise with the Serbs, an attitude that has on occasion put him at odds with the more aggressive NATO.
Earlier Sunday, French President Jacques Chirac went on national television in Paris to announce that the air strikes would be suspended for a few hours to allow the two military commanders to talk. Neither U.N. nor NATO officials could confirm that a pause had been ordered.
The day before, Mladic had told Russian officials that he would not withdraw his heavy weapons from around Sarajevo, saying they are needed to protect Serbian civilians living in Serb-held suburbs. But Mladic offered to discuss a cease-fire and lifting the siege of Sarajevo, according to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who met Mladic in Belgrade, the Serbian and Yugoslav capital.
Russia is an ally of the Serbs and opposes the U.S.-led air campaign against them, which was put on hold for 60 hours last week to give the Serbs time to comply with the demands. They refused then as well.
NATO has gradually widened the range of targets it is aiming its bombs at--from radar sites and ammunition dumps to military bases, communication links and bridges--in an effort to disrupt the Serbs' supply and command lines.
Minutes after the Tomahawk attack, a wave of fighter jets took off from the aircraft carrier Roosevelt, carrying 2,000-pound "smart bombs," according to NATO officials in Naples.
The Yugoslav news agency Tanjug also reported the bombing Sunday of a hydroelectric plant at Visegrad, near the Bosnian border with Serbia.
And NATO jets destroyed a Bosnian Serb command bunker and artillery position near the U.N.-designated "safe area" of Tuzla after its airport came under intense Serbian shelling.
The Serbian shelling was in apparent reprisal for a Bosnian government offensive against Bosnian Serb forces on nearby Mt. Ozren. The government had promised it would not take advantage of the NATO campaign to launch its own attacks, and the Mt. Ozren raid appeared to violate that pledge.
Even before the Tomahawk attack, Bosnian Serb media were claiming that up to 200 civilians had been killed since NATO began its raids. On Sunday, Bosnian Serb TV gave extensive coverage to what it said were the deaths of a young brother and sister whose car was hit in a NATO attack on a road north of Sarajevo late Saturday night.
U.N. officials are preparing to inspect a Bosnian Serb hospital near Sarajevo where the Serbs claim the U.N. rapid-reaction force overshot its target and killed 10 people Friday.
NATO and U.S. officials in Washington said the use of the Tomahawk missiles does not represent a change in the military mission or the U.S. role in the conflict. But clearly the U.S.-led operation is demonstrating its willingness to reach into its arsenal for the most sophisticated weapons available.
Tomahawks were last used extensively in the spring of 1993, when U.S. warships fired nearly 50 of the missiles at the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in retaliation for alleged Iraqi complicity in an assassination plot against former President George Bush.
On Sunday, the missiles, carrying conventional 700-pound warheads with a boosted explosive punch equivalent to 1,000-pound weapons, reached their targets in the Banja Luka area at roughly 9:30 p.m., the Navy said in Washington. They had been fired in a sequential "ripple effect" nearly an hour earlier and flew to their targets at what was described as "high subsonic" speed.
The Navy has long argued that cruise missiles, which can be fired from ships hundreds of miles from a target, are superior in many ways to aerial bombardment.
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang in Washington and Tyler Marshall in Brussels contributed to this report.
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Path of Attack
The U.S. cruiser Normandy, in the Adriatic Sea, fired 13 Tomahawk missiles at targets near the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka.
The Tomahawk, capable of following any geographical terrain to its intended target, can "see" through a tiny television camera mounted in its nose.
* Length: 21 ft.
* Diameter: 20.9 inches
* Wing span: 8 ft. 6 inches
* Cruise engine: 606 pounds thrust turbofan
* Range: about 710 miles
* Cruising speed: 550 m.p.h.
Source: Jane's Weapon Systems