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When the response finally came, however, it was just what NATO had threatened. Shortly after 2 a.m. Wednesday, the first sortie of planes began bombing Bosnian Serb positions around Sarajevo. Artillery units of the rapid-reaction force, a multinational contingent assigned to protect U.N. convoys and peacekeepers, joined the attack. nato planes also struck Bosnian Serb targets near Gorazde and Tuzla, two other U.N. "safe areas." The warplanes focused first on the Bosnian Serbs' sophisticated air-defense network. Then they turned to ammunition depots and factories in Lukavica and Vogosca, surface-to-air missile sites throughout Bosnia, and the Bosnian Serb artillery sites ringing Sarajevo.
Early on Thursday the bombing slowed due to poor weather, but it picked up late in the day. The sorties were then halted as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Richard Holbrooke began urging a pause, worried that further attacks might backfire by making the Serbs more recalcitrant. In all, 506 sorties were flown; the Serbs shot down only one plane, a French Mirage 2000C. The two crew members ejected, but their fate is unknown. The operation was regarded as a success, but officials soon tempered their exultant initial reports.
The groundwork for last week's raids had been laid two months earlier, when the U.N. "safe havens" of Srebrenica and Zepa were overrun by the Bosnian Serbs. The inability of nato and the U.N. to prevent the fall of either town, despite their pledges to protect it, galvanized the allies' resolve to ensure that nothing like that would happen again. "The fall of Srebrenica was a blow to the credibility of the West, and we are the leader of the West," said a senior State Department official. "If we didn't respond with U.S. leadership, the situation was going to unravel." Added a senior White House official: "This was a turning point for the President."
That new interest in exercising American leadership abroad dovetailed with an upcoming international conference in London. Called in response to the Srebrenica and Zepa debacles, the conference seemed likely to be yet another windy session in which the U.S. and European diplomats would issue meaningless threats. The chairman of this conference, however, was to be Britain's newly appointed Foreign Minister Malcolm Rifkind, who had arrived in Washington on a regularly scheduled visit just as Srebrenica was falling.
Rifkind and U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher spent the better part of two days together. They talked intensively about Bosnia and eventually agreed on a plan that would call for "substantial and decisive air strikes" if the Bosnian Serbs threatened the U.N. safe haven of Goradze. Once the conference was under way, it took 24 hours to convince the allies that the West had to change the way it did business. That effort eventually bore fruit in the form of several new moves, most of which were hammered out in a series of follow-up nato meetings in Brussels. Perhaps the most important change was insistence that the so-called dual-key arrangement, which gave U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali veto authority over nato air strikes, be scrapped. (Accordingly, the U.N. chief did not learn of last week's bombings until just after the air strikes began, when a note was passed to him as he dined with friends at his Manhattan residence.)