U.N. Mission Ends; NATO’s Begins
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ The green and brown helmets of NATO fighters replaced the baby blue headgear of U.N. peacekeepers Wednesday as the new American commander in Bosnia took control with a terse, ``Let’s get on with it.″
The Muslims, Croats and Serbs who have fought in Bosnia for nearly four years had often mocked the lightly armed U.N. peacekeepers, whose mission ended as NATO’s began.
The no-nonsense style of the NATO command was designed to show that the new force meant business. The soldiers went straight to work, clearing blocked roads, digging in weapons and marking off territory.
At the Black Dog checkpoint in northern Bosnia, 20 miles south of the Serb stronghold of Banja Luka and the site of Croat-Serb fighting two months ago, two Croat soldiers watched as British troops cleared the front line.
Soldiers set up mortars. A bulldozer swept away a Croat road barrier, widening the dirt road. Other troops set up anti-tank traps and marked the route to the new NATO checkpoint with white rope.
Croats and Serbs both cleared mines from the road and appeared impressed with the display of NATO armor and the soldiers’ manner.
``They’re more disciplined,″ said Kristijan, one the Croat fighters, comparing the NATO and U.N. troops. ``They’re real soldiers.″
Ante, his buddy, agreed.
``We’re safer when they’re here,″ he said. ``They’re better than the blue helmets.″
As Croat gunfire crackled in nearby mountains overlooking the checkpoint, Ante said: ``That’s joy. They’re celebrating. It means we can go home.″
Neither of the Croats would give their full name. Commanders in Bosnia often order their troops not to identify themselves to reporters.
Few of the NATO soldiers who are to enforce the peace treaty signed in Paris last week have arrived in Bosnia _ only about 1,000 of the 60,000 expected.
But thousands of U.N. peacekeepers from NATO countries simply switched helmets _ replacing the blue U.N. hats with ones from their own nations’ armies, becoming part of the NATO mission.
Across Bosnia, U.N. flags dropped as NATO commanders took control of U.N. military bases.
The official change came at a battered, sand-bagged airport in Sarajevo, where officials surrounded in fog signed the papers that ended the U.N. mission and began that of NATO.
``Gentlemen, it’s time,″ said U.S. Navy Adm. Leighton Smith, commander of the NATO military mission. ``Let’s get on with it.″
Smith missed the formal transfer of authority because fog prevented his plane from landing in the morning. But he arrived later to sign the papers in a brief ceremony.
It was the same story at the U.S. headquarters in the northeastern Bosnian town of Tuzla, where only one C-130 out of a scheduled 30 flights made it in before heavy fog shrouded the airfield. So far, only about 670 U.S. soldiers of 20,000 expected have made it to Tuzla.
The United Nations relinquished a frustrating mission charged with keeping a peace that never existed. The outgoing commander, Lt. Gen. Bernard Janvier of France, turned to Smith during the ceremony and wished him more success.
``Let me hand over to him not a trembling flame but a bright torch of peace,″ he said.
The NATO mission is better equipped than its U.N. predecessors. The soldiers are better armed, and they have the go-ahead to use their weapons.
``We are not here as a bunch of cowboys looking for a fight,″ said Smith. But he said if threatened, ``we have the authority to take whatever action″ is necessary.
Operation Joint Endeavor, the largest Western military operation in Europe since World War II, is charged with sowing peace in a nation sharply divided along ethnic, national and religious lines.
The troops are to enforce a U.S.-brokered peace plan that essentially splits the country into a Serb republic and a Muslim-Croat federation. They are to keep the combatants separated by heavily patrolled zones while the country tries to rebuild.
They also are charged with enforcing various deadlines outlined in the peace accord, making sure ``holy warriors″ from other Muslim countries leave on schedule, all sides limit their arsenals and negotiators hold talks on confidence-building measures.
Many of the foreign Islamic fighters are refusing to leave, challenging NATO to force them out. ``The Bosnian government is responsible for their departure from Bosnia, but many of them refuse to cooperate,″ Muhamed Filipovic, Bosnia’s ambassador to Britain, told the Zagreb, Croatia-based newspaper Globus.
The peace accord calls for them to leave Bosnia by Jan. 14. But Smith indicated Wednesday that he might be flexible about such deadlines, saying: ``I’m not locked into anything at this point.″
Even so, the NATO resolve was impressive in a country where U.N. peacekeepers stood by amid slaughter for 3 1/2 years.
U.N. forces in Bosnia, numbering 24,000 at their peak, had their successes _ notably delivering humanitarian aid to the besieged and needy. U.N. refugee workers also helped care for more than 1 million people displaced by the war.
But the peacekeepers were unable to stop the fighting that killed 200,000 people and made more than 2 million homeless. Along the way, the peacekeepers were harassed, shot at and taken hostage.
The NATO mission arrives amid greater hope _ but also greater expectations.
``They have enough equipment, the right mandate and for the first time the will to carry it it out,″ said Bosnian soldier Nihad Dzinalija. ``If they fail, nobody will ever be able to prevent or solve any conflict anywhere anymore.″