WASHINGTON -- As the crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina escalated this week, American political leaders debated the pros and cons of U.S. involvement in the bloody and complex civil war in the former Yugoslavia.
But yesterday's downing of a U.S. fighter jet over Bosnia -- the first since U.S. pilots began flying over the region more than two years ago -- brought home the fact that U.S. troops have played a role in the Balkans war almost since its beginning.
While there are no U.S. ground troops among the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, U.S. planes and ships have been part of NATO operations there, conducting air and sea patrols since July 1992.
The Air Force F-16 warplane shot down yesterday was one of nearly 100 U.S. aircraft participating in Operation Deny Flight, a NATO mission begun two years ago to enforce a U.N.-sponsored "no-fly zone" over Bosnia and to conduct airstrikes against designated Serbian targets.
The NATO bombing last week of an ammunitions depot in Pale, the political headquarters of the Bosnian Serbs, was carried out mainly by U.S. aircraft: four F-16s and two F-18s, along with U.S. electronic warfare aircraft and search-and-rescue planes.
Since the NATO air operation began, allied fighters have made more than 20,000 flights over Bosnia-Herzegovina to monitor the "no-fly zone" as well as more than 20,000 additional flights to support peacekeeping forces and conduct airstrikes.
France, the Netherlands, Spain, Turkey and Britain have also supplied aircraft for the operation, which has involved 4,500 military personnel.
U.S. pilots participated in the U.N. humanitarian relief flights into Sarajevo that began in July 1992. The first direct, unilateral U.S. military involvement in the former Yugoslavia was in February and March 1993, when Air Force planes dropped relief supplies to towns under siege by Serbian forces.
Between July 1992 and October 1994, U.S. forces were in the Adriatic as part of the NATO-sponsored Operation Sharp Guard, the naval blockade of arms shipments to the former Yugoslavia.
The U.S. Senate voted to end the operation last fall. But since the escalation of tensions last week, three U.S. warships -- carrying 2,000 Marines -- the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and at least one nuclear-powered submarine have sailed into the Adriatic. More than 12,000 sailors and Marines are there now.
The U.S. commitment to the U.N. peacekeeping forces has been smaller than that of many of the other 36 nations contributing troops. France has the largest contingent; thus far, 39 French soldiers have been killed in the conflict.
Of the 37,860 peacekeepers in the Balkans, the United States has supplied 848 troops, 500 of whom have been stationed in Macedonia, where they have guarded since July 1993 against expansion of the war.
About 300 U.S. troops have been stationed in Croatia for the past two years, half of them assigned to a hospital unit and the other half in administrative and support roles.