Europe's Enforcers in Bosnia Brace for Battle

Rapid Reaction Force of French, British, Dutch troops will deliver humanitarian aid and back up United Nations, while US offers air cover, armor

AS dozens of journalists watched, British troops in the United Nation's new "Rapid Reaction Force" practiced house-to-house fighting, while British Warrior tanks rumbled south to escort a convoy of new artillery batteries through the mountains of central Bosnia this weekend.

"It's a PR thing," quipped one British soldier, referring to the tank escort. "You're going to get very good photos."

With great fanfare, defense ministers from 15 countries agreed this weekend in Paris to create a rapid reaction force, up to 10,000 strong, to aid beleaguered UN peacekeepers in Bosnia. But UN officials already on the ground here warn that the task force will probably be quickly challenged by the Serbs and worry it may be hampered by a lack of political will.

"I think the events of the last few weeks have demonstrated the need to get tough," says a UN official in Zagreb, Croatia. "But I'm not sure the political will is there for it."

Beefed up forces

On paper, the force is an impressive commitment by European nations to respond to Bos-nian Serb hostage taking. Britain will nearly triple the number of troops it has in Bosnia from 3,400 to as many as 9,000. It will contribute 1,500 troops to the multinational Western rapid reaction force, 4,000 to 5,000 troops to a British Air Mobile Brigade to operate alongside it, and 1,200 to a British-led artillery unit being formed in central Bosnia.

France, which was the largest troop contributor to the UN force in Bosnia, will increase its troops from 4,700 to 6,200. It will contribute 1,500 soldiers and the Netherlands 200 to the new operation called "Task Force Alpha."

President Clinton, under heavy fire from Republican critics, has backed off a proposal he made last week that US troops could be used to help UN forces redeploy to safer positions. "I have decided that, if a UN unit needs an emergency extraction, we would assist after consulting with Congress," Mr. Clinton said in his weekly radio address on Saturday. "This would be a limited, temporary operation."

Defense Secretary William Perry said in Paris that the US was contributing helicopters and planes for air cover, armor, and equipment, but no troops. "We will lean forward as far as we can to provide all of the support that the US has available to it," he said Saturday, "not including putting ground forces in."

UN military and civilian officials in central Bosnia praised the formation of the force, but warned that the long-running failure of the UN to punish numerous violations of its mandates - mostly by the Bosnian Serbs - will make it harder for the new forces to "provide protection" for the more vulnerable elements of UN peacekeepers.

"I think the key is to set a very strong precedent from the beginning. It's a lesson that can be learned by future UN missions," says a senior UN official here. "Once you don't do it at the beginning, the [offenders] develop a sense of arrogance. It's going to be very difficult to do it now."

Task Force Alpha, which will include British attack and transport helicopters and artillery guns with a range of 10 miles, will be controlled by the UN commanders in the former Yugoslavia, French Gen. Bernard Janvier and British Gen. Rupert Smith. Rapid responses by the force would then not require approval from UN headquarters in New York, a step that has slowed UN reaction on the ground in the past.

Although the NATO defense ministers meeting in Paris agreed that more firepower is needed, there are already disagreements over how the new force should be used. The French would like to see the new force open a permanent land corridor to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, take control of the Sarajevo airport, and guarantee access to the three UN-protected Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia surrounded by Serbs.

But British Brig. Andrew Pringle, the UN commander of the new Task Force Alpha, said in a press conference in his Gorni Vakuf, Bosnia, headquarters Saturday that the task force would not take on new duties beyond delivering humanitarian aid and enforcing current UN mandates in Bosnia.

"It is all about executing the mandate with greater security for the troops doing it," Brigadier Pringle said. "This would enable us to move humanitarian aid with a greater ability to protect ourselves in the event of being fired upon."

A better response

Sir John Wilsey, the British general responsible for supporting all British military personnel in Bosnia, told reporters that the force will be effective because it will give UN commanders new, more measured ways to respond to attacks or violations from all sides in the conflict.

"It's giving him more flexibility," General Wilsey said, "and fills that gap which exists at the moment between, on the one hand, [relying on] negotiating and consent, and air attack on the other."

The senior UN official said the Serbs respect firepower and may curtail their harassment of peacekeepers if the political will to use the new task force - and take some losses - is shown by London and Paris.

"Now, if they want to try something, they may find themselves outgunned in some situations," says a senior UN official. "So I think the temptation to needle UN Protection Forces or whatever force is here will be less."

The official said the risk the Europeans are taking shouldn't be underestimated. Britain and France are now more deeply involved in what some officials are calling Europe's Vietnam and may soon find themselves involuntarily taking sides in the conflict. "It is a ratcheting up. I think what we're seeing is a gradual education of the international community that there is not a moral equivalence among the Serbs, the Bosnians, and the Croats," says the senior UN official. "I think you're going to gradually see a change in the British and the French attitudes that will be a little less inclined toward the Serbs."

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