ZAGREB, CROATIA — NEARLY one-quarter of the way through their year-long mandate, NATO forces in Bosnia are beginning to shift more from peacekeeping to peace-enforcing actions.
But despite the political glow from the emergency weekend summit in Rome - where Balkan leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the Dayton peace accord - results on the ground in Bosnia are mixed.
Just one day after chief architect of the Dayton deal, US envoy Richard Holbrooke, announced that the crisis in Bosnia had been averted, a top Bosnian Serb general failed to meet his Croat and Muslim counterparts aboard an American warship in the Adriatic. The meeting was designed to mark the end of a Serb boycott of the peace process, but the snub only confirmed that serious obstacles remain.
NATO commander of forces in Bosnia Adm. Leighton Smith said the Serb failure to attend was "unconscionable" and "just not smart," and he blamed Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic - both indicted war criminals.
"Why is it that one or two [people] on the top can stall the process?" he asked.
The Serb snub represents a new challenge to implementation of the peace plan, even as NATO forces are increasingly using force to ensure compliance with its provisions. Actions of recent days - which coincide with the 60,000-member force reaching full strength - appear designed to show that NATO is willing to exercise its "robust" mandate in Bosnia.
On Feb. 19, for example, some 100 French troops seized an arms cache in the Serb-held Sarajevo suburb of Ilijas, 9 miles north of the Bosnian capital. Mortars, machine guns, a missile, rocket launchers, crates of ammunition and explosives were found in an area due to be transferred to Bosnian government authority.
In the toughest action to date, on Feb. 17 US troops backed by tanks and helicopters demanded access to a large Bosnian Serb weapons depot at Han Pijesak, next to General Mladic's headquarters. After being turned back on two previous occasions, US Col. John Batiste told Serb guards: "I want you to know that I'm going in with or without your permission." The Serbs gave way.
Serbs have boycotted contacts with NATO and Bosnia's Muslim-Croat federation since Feb. 8, demanding that two senior Serb Army officers being questioned for war crimes be released from the jurisdiction of The Hague-based UN War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Their arrest by Bosnian government police sparked a crisis that brought Mr. Holbrooke back to the region, and showed how far the peace process had unravelled.
But a Feb. 15 military operation demonstrated that the Serbs are not the only ones subject to NATO action, and showed how different the force was acting from its ineffectual United Nations predecessor.
NATO troops raided what they called a terrorist training camp on Bosnian government territory, arresting three Iranian instructors and uncovering a unit in which "students" were taught how to booby-trap children's toys and household items with plastic explosives. A picture of Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stood watch over the collection of armaments.
Calling the find an "abomination," Admiral Smith declared that the presence of foreign forces was a "serious violation" of the Dayton accord. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher had earlier warned the Muslim-led Bosnian government that continued ties to Iran and other Islamic extremists could jeopardize a $500-million American program to train and arm the Bosnian Army that is meant to level the playing field in the Balkans.
The forceful NATO military actions may have encouraged Balkan leaders in Rome to reconfirm their commitment to Dayton, but political obstacles remain.
One senior commander, British Lt. Gen. Michael Walker, accepted a Serb invitation to meet Gen. Zdravko Tolimir - the general who missed the Feb. 19 gathering on the US warship - at the Bosnian Serb headquarters at Pale on Feb. 20. But he said signs were not encouraging from any of Bosnia's three factions. "They are not indicating that they want peace at any price," General Walker said. "There has to be some sense of reconciliation, that political leadership has to be prepared to compromise some of its more hard-line positions."
In another indication of a broadening mission, on Feb. 19 NATO released a poster showing grainy pictures of 17 of the 52 war criminals indicted by the Tribunal, to help soldiers identify the men for arrest.
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