Monday's downing of four Serb warplanes came at a delicate moment in U.S.-led efforts to end the war in Bosnia, but there were no immediate signs the incident would derail that process.
U.S. and Bosnian officials said the attack by U.S. F-16s flying under the NATO banner would add momentum to peacemaking efforts by underscoring Western resolve to enforce the no-fly zone across Bosnia as well as other United Nations mandates.
"Far from damaging the prospects for peace, it may actually improve the prospects for peace," said Vice President Al Gore.
The NATO attack marks some important firsts:
It was the first time Western military power was brought to bear in Bosnia.
After more than 1,000 previous Serbian violations of the no-fly zone, NATO aircraft used force to enforce the 16 month-old U.N. ban.
For the first time in its 44-year history, NATO was engaged in offensive military action.
Perhaps more important, however, was the tacit approval of the action by Moscow. Its influence is seen as key to pressing Bosnian Serbs to make concessions essential to the peace process.
"Whatever side has conducted a military flight over Bosnia, in violation of (U.N.) resolutions . . . has to bear full responsibility for what has happened," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Similarly, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev said in Norway that Monday's incident underscored that "whoever violates the United Nations' no-fly zone over Bosnia will be punished."
The Russian comments came as Serb leader Radovan Karadzic arrived in Moscow for consultations on a complex end-game strategy that the United States, the 12-nation European Union and Russia are trying to work out with the three warring parties in Bosnia: the Serbs, Croats and the Muslim-led Bosnian government.
Representatives of the Croatian and Bosnian governments met here Monday for a third day of talks aimed at creating an ethnically-mixed state in Bosnia and carving out a Serb homeland across perhaps half of that state.
The talks, originally slated to end Monday, were extended until today, in a sign that the three parties might be nearing agreement on broad but important points.
"Certainly Ambassador Redman views that as an encouraging sign," State Department spokesman Michael McCurry said, referring to U.S. special envoy Charles Redman, the department's point man on the Bosnia peace process.
There was no reason to expect that the downing of the Serb aircraft would affect the talks here since they don't, at this point, involve Serbs directly.
Certainly Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, whose forces have been vastly outgunned by Serb rebels throughout the two-year war, had no objection to the downings.
"I think this is the best guarantee for peace," Silajdzic told reporters as he entered talks with Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic and Bosnian Croat representative Kresimir Zubak. "It's the best way to make peace in Bosnia."
More broadly, however, Serbs have been pressed by NATO to give up their heavy guns around the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo and to respect a U.N.-brokered cease-fire there _ demands with which the Serbs have so far complied.
Croats and Bosnian government forces also have agreed to a cease-fire across central Bosnia, though there have been scattered violations since the truce took effect Friday.
U.N. officials are trying to build on those agreements and extend the cease-fire elsewhere, though Monday saw heavy shelling of central Bosnian cities such as Tuzla.
It wasn't clear whether the shelling was in retaliation for the downing of the Serb aircraft.
U.S. officials voiced no fears over such consequences as a result of Monday's downings of Serb aircraft.
"We did the right thing," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla. "This kind of firm action will help to stop the killing and begin the process of peace in Bosnia.
"For too long we have been sending out strong words about what we are going to do in Bosnia," Graham said. "This is an indication that we are going to back those words up."
McCurry, the State Department spokesman, said he was mystified over why Serb warplanes would choose this time to test NATO's resolve.
"The analysis ranges from sheer stupidity to calculated efforts to test NATO," McCurry said. "If this was a test, I think that NATO just scored an A-plus."
_ Information from staff writer David Dahl and the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.