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Airport Tussles, Bad Phone Lines, Imitation John Denver Await Americans

December 2, 1995

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ As if land mines and slippery mountain roads aren’t bad enough, the U.S. Army has a new headache in Bosnia: balky Swedish peacekeepers.

Their gripes about low pay have capped a week of planning and politicking _ from Washington to Tuzla _ for the 60,000-member NATO mission that will help implement a long-awaited peace deal in Bosnia.

With a cease-fire holding after 3 1/2 years of war, thoughts of peace for the moment seem to have taken a back seat to logistical and political headaches, some serious and others laughable.

From quiet anger at NATO’s takeover of the local airport, to the clattering of an antiquated local telephone system, enforcing peace may involve Murphy’s Law: if anything can go wrong, it will.

A U.S. Army reconnaissance team last week was examining several sites for the headquarters of the 20,000 U.S. 1st Armored Division troops who will be deployed in Bosnia _ and keeping silent about the locations.

The problem is that the airport, now headquarters for U.N. peacekeepers in northeastern Bosnia, is mined in many places. It also may be too small for the estimated 2,000-3,000 headquarters personnel _ double the U.N. staff.

Even worse is the coming strain on Tuzla’s telephone and water systems. When U.S. Army scouts and scores of foreign journalists arrived, the area had six international telephone circuits. Since then, hundreds have been ordered and some people fear the network may collapse when the deployment begins.

``We are improving the water supply, so we will have enough water for the city and the NATO troops,″ said Selim Beslagic, Tuzla’s mayor.

Tuzla area officials are thrilled with the chance for peace and desperate for an economic boost. But with rail lines damaged or blocked, they bristle that U.S. forces may keep the Tuzla airport for themselves.

The Bosnian government has put use of the airfield at NATO’s discretion, as it was for the U.N. peacekeepers through the war.

``NATO should use part of the airport and the region should use the other part,″ said the regional governor, Izet Hadzic.

Some of the U.N. peacekeepers may be happy to leave. About 1,000 soldiers from Sweden, which is not in NATO, were expected to trade their blue U.N. hats for green NATO combat helmets.

But as NATO was finalizing plans to absorb them, many complained that they never bargained for real war and want more than their $1,500-$2,500 a month in wages.

``To put on a green helmet seems like greater risk, even though it is supposed to be peace,″ a 21-year-old Swedish sergeant said, on condition of anonymity. ``When I signed the contract, it said U.N., not NATO.″

Swedish commanders will brief the men on their options and announce a solution next week, Lt. Col. Sverker Goranson, the batallion chief of staff, said Saturday.

And if peace holds, the Americans may have trouble finding ways to spend their leisure time.

The Communist-era city, with 50,000 refugees added to its 130,000 residents, has a handful of eateries and no working cinemas.

One entrepreneur opened the ``American Club″ this weekend after managing to find two small U.S. flags and singers who could do John Denver’s ``Country Road.″

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