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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saudis Say U.S. Helped Arm Bosnian Moslems

WASHINGTON -- Dismayed by Western inaction in Bosnia, Saudi Arabia funded a $300 million covert operation to channel weapons to the Moslem-led government over the past three years with the knowledge and tacit cooperation of the United States, according to an official with first-hand knowledge of the operation.

The arms shipments, which were in addition to around $500 million in Saudi humanitarian aid, were in direct violation of a United Nations arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia that Washington had pledged to enforce.

The Bosnian program was modeled in some respects on the Afghanistan experience in the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia helped finance the covert arming of anti-Soviet Moslem fighters in an operation supported by a similar cast of former U.S. military and intelligence personnel and agents, according to a Saudi official. The essential difference was that the United States did not provide matching funds for the Bosnian arms-smuggling effort, in contrast to the Afghan operation.

The Saudi provided significant new details about the scope, timing and mode of operation of the program, of which only sketchy descriptions have been provided in the past by U.S. and other Western officials. The Saudi assertion of U.S. cooperation in supplying arms to the Bosnian Moslems drew strong denials from U.S. officials. Clinton administration officials have repeatedly denied persistent reports from European allied officials of U.S. involvement in arming the Bosnian Moslems.

The Saudi official provided few details about direct U.S. involvement, but insisted that the U.S. role "was more than just turning a blind eye to what was going on ... It was consent combined with stealth cooperation ... American knowledge began under [President George] Bush and became much greater under [President Bill] Clinton.''

The White House official said the United States would not have attempted to mount such a covert operation because allied troops were on the ground in Bosnia as part of the UN peacekeeping force.

"Whatever the Saudis claim to have done was not in concert with us, or with our approval,'' the U.S. official said. "We have not in any way coordinated, endorsed, or in any other way encouraged other countries to violate the arms embargo.''

French defense ministry officials have repeatedly insisted that the United States helped facilitate a series of mysterious flights to Tuzla during the war by U.S. planes, which were witnessed by UN observers. U.S. officials have denied any involvement in organizing the flights.

If the Saudi version of events is accurate, the Clinton administration took care to preserve the principle of plausible deniability in the Bosnia arms effort through the use of former military and intelligence personnel and trusted middlemen. Saudi sources said that such informal American involvement was essential because Saudi Arabia lacked the "technical sophistication'' to mount the operation by itself.

The official refused to go into detail about the U.S. role in the operation, other than to say that the Saudis had made use of the same "network'' of undercover operatives, arms salesmen, and "former this and former that'' set up during the Afghan operation.