WASHINGTON -- A Navy task force with 2,000 Marines aboard is being sent toward the Adriatic coast in case they are needed to evacuate peacekeepers from Muslim-held Bihac, the United Nations "safe haven" under assault by Serbian forces, the Pentagon said last night.
Maj. Tom LaRock said the goal of the force is to support United Nations, NATO and U.S. military personnel in the area.
The move was announced as the Bosnian Serbs detained more than 200 U.N. peacekeeping troops as hostages to ward off allied air attacks. And in central Bosnia, 20 Canadian peacekeepers were detained and 35 others were under close Bosnian Serb observation.
The Marines, aboard a three-ship group headed by the USS Nassau, were ordered yesterday to sail from the port of Toulon, France, to a position in the Adriatic Sea off the Yugoslav coast, officials said.
The ships left four days ahead of a scheduled departure. They were not given any orders beyond relocating to the area, the Pentagon said, describing the move as "precautionary." The force should arrive off Bosnia early next week, NBC News reported.
The ships contain landing craft, helicopters and jump jets, making them capable of search-and-rescue missions.
The force was dispatched amid growing fears in Washington for the safety of mostly Bangladeshi U.N. peacekeepers in the safe-zone area in Bihac and for the survival of the city inhabitants, who are running dangerously low on food and water. Bihac's population of 45,000 has swelled to 70,000 as refugees fled surrounding villages.
The situation in the besieged town, declared a "safe haven" by the United Nations, was deteriorating rapidly.
U.S. officials also fear that if the Bosnian Serbs gain control of the area and link up with Serbs in the nearby Croatian region of Krajina, both Croatia and Serbia itself could be drawn back into the fighting and trigger a wider and bloodier conflict.
Yesterday, NATO warplanes buzzed the northwest Bosnian town and only darkness prevented airstrikes intended to silence Serbian shelling of the area.
Paying the warplanes no heed, the Serbian rebels reportedly advanced into the outskirts of the town of Bihac and demanded RTC the surrender of government soldiers.
"We have not been able to hit any targets, but I suspect the planes will be back tomorrow," Kofi Annan, the U.N. undersecretary for peacekeeping, told reporters in New York.
Mr. Annan said the warplanes were in the air for 60 minutes but broke off the mission because of darkness. The planes were targeted by two or three anti-aircraft missile batteries, but all aircraft returned safely, he said.
U.N. officials said the Bosnian forces defending Bihac appeared to number no more than 500.
It was unclear what had become of the rest of the approximately 15,000 soldiers that made up the Bosnian 5th Corps before the Serbian attack began.
Serbian tanks and artillery resumed fire yesterday afternoon on Bihac, one of six U.N.-designated safe zones in Bosnia, said U.N. officials in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, and Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. At least four shells struck Bihac.
"The city is apparently just about to collapse," said Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the U.N. aid agency in Zagreb. Street fighting exploded on the edge of town, said Maj. Herve Gourmelon, a U.N. spokesman in Sarajevo.
Mr. Kessler said there were "a lot of burning villages around the city, which contradicts their [Serbs'] claim they are carrying out this sweep to protect the population."
Local authorities in Bihac claimed that the city's 800-bed hospital was receiving 60 to 100 war casualties daily. No one has given a death toll.
Gen. Manojlo Milovanovic, the Bosnian Serb chief of staff, demanded that the surrender of the government army's 5th Corps in the Bihac area, Bosnian Serb television reported.
"You are completely surrounded," General Milovanovic said. "If you don't want to think about your lives, you ought to think about the lives of your civilian population, which is innocent."
Without surrender, he said, his troops would hunt soldiers of the 5th Corps "wherever they are." He pledged safety to any soldier and officer who did give up.
U.N. officials estimated that Bosnian Serb forces had seized up to 30 percent of the safe area to the south, southeast and southwest of the city.
The sources said the Muslim-led government troops in Bihac had defenses that looked "fragile and vulnerable."
Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, the U.N. commander in Bosnia, and Yasushi Akashi, the senior U.N. official in former Yugoslavia, threatened the Serbs with airstrikes if they shelled Bihac again.
In an interview with the British SKY TV network, Mr. Akashi said he was prepared to use airstrikes "even at the risk of civilian casualties."
NATO bombed the Croatian Serb air base of Udbina, 22 miles from Bihac, on Monday. NATO planes struck at three Serbian missile batteries in Croatia and Bosnia on Wednesday.
The heightened fighting around Bihac deepened policy splits over the former Yugoslavia between the United States and its European allies.
It came as key Republican members of Congress, particularly Senate GOP leader Bob Dole of Kansas, complained that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is being hamstrung by the United Nations.
NATO ambassadors, meeting in Brussels, Belgium, agreed Thursday to enforce a weapons-free "exclusion zone" around Bihac to quell the fighting, but left it up to the United Nations to figure out the size of the zone and how it should be policed.
By late yesterday, the United Nations was more intent on securing a cease-fire in the area than on setting up an exclusion zone.
A senior U.S. official, referring to the United States' European allies, lamented yesterday, "What they vote for in Brussels is not necessarily what they vote for in New York," at U.N. headquarters.
Britain and France have repeatedly sought to restrain an aggressive NATO response to Serbian attacks in Bosnia for fear their U.N. peacekeeping troops would be harmed in retaliation.
Mr. Annan, the U.S. undersecretary in charge of peacekeeping operations, said NATO air power could not be used to break the siege of Bihac because of the situation on the ground.
Regarding suggestions the Bosnian Serbs might be attacked elsewhere by air to force them to withdraw, he said:
"That may be an option, but how would the Serbs react? Would they indeed withdraw? Would they take some of the [U.N.] troops hostages? Would they go for our soft targets -- unarmed military observers, aid workers and so forth?"
Mr. Annan said this was a highly complex and difficult situation "and our poor commanders on the ground are required on almost an hourly basis to manage this fluid, ambiguous and unpredictable situation.
"It is a situation that requires keen judgment and we cannot get into a tit-for-tat sort of reaction."
In related actions:
* Bosnian Serb and government representatives met at Sarajevo airport to discuss a truce covering the whole of the country but adjourned without any agreement.
* On Thursday, some Canadian personnel were harassed by Bosnian government forces when they tried to depart from the town of Visoko, but they were allowed to proceed yesterday, a Canadian officer said.
After government troops had prevented Canadians from leaving their base, U.N. sources said, the peacekeepers used armored personnel carriers to block the main streets.