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NATO's Bosnia Mission Creeps, Despite Vows

New focus on meeting civilian need threatens neutrality

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PEACE force commanders in Bosnia have been slowly expanding the mission of NATO-led peacekeeping troops, in an effort to smooth Bosnia's transition from war and to help ensure a lasting peace.

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Despite fears of "mission creep," NATO sources say, there is a growing recognition of the importance of civilian aspects of the Dayton peace accord. Though military compliance by all of Bosnia's former warring factions is nearly complete - with rivals now separated by 60,000 peacekeepers - success is far from assured.

"The military commanders have now accepted that they will change their emphasis," said Maj. Simon Haselock, a spokesman for the peace force.

"We're now saying that we will assist in civil projects in a much more dynamic way than we have done. This shift in the emphasis of land-forces operations is in response to the obvious need for civilian assistance in repairing and replacing the infrastructure damaged after four years of war," he says.

NATO will clear mines

NATO expects full compliance with the last major military deadline imposed by the Dayton accord, which requires Bosnia's forces to withdraw to barracks and the cantonment of heavy weapons by April 18. After that date, NATO-led forces will clear mines and help with transport, communications, and providing medical aid.

But the announcement made Monday that the operation will expand belies that fact that mission creep already began last month, as peacekeepers dabbled in trying to smooth the rough edges of new population shifts, and to halfheartedly contain violence and destruction in Serb-held suburbs of Sarajevo.

Those subtle changes came largely as a result of criticism from Western diplomats and the media that NATO commanders were interpreting their mandate too strictly, in an effort to avoid the same pitfalls that unravelled the 1993 peace mission in Somalia.

Though welcomed by some Bosnians, the broadening NATO role has also been controversial. At times, it has been seen to step beyond the confines of neutrality:

NATO agreed last month to assist the exodus of thousands of Serbs from the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca, on the eve of its transfer to the Muslim-led government. The move came despite complaints from the United Nations and relief agencies that NATO was aiding ethnic "cleansing," a long-time Serb war aim, and undermining the Dayton vision of a multiethnic Bosnia.

Adm. Leighton Smith, commander of the peace force, said his decision was meant to "show compassion," and to "make things nice and clean."

Despite steady refusals to help police the five Serb suburbs as exiting Serbs burned and looted them - or to assist a tiny UN international police force to do so - NATO troops finally stepped in two weeks ago to escort Bosnian government fire trucks to put out fires that threatened lives.

UN sources say that British forces offered to deploy two companies around Sarajevo to prevent the destruction and violence - using urban guerrilla war experience from Northern Ireland - but French and Italian troops declined.

Just two days before the last suburb of Grbavica was handed over, when much of the housing and all the factories and public buildings in the suburbs had already been looted and destroyed, NATO forces began to arrest arsonists and other troublemakers who had been setting booby-traps to kill returning refugees.

Contrary to declarations early this year that protection of suspected mass grave sites and of UN investigation teams was not the job of the peace forces, commanders have now promised to assist in the protection of those teams, and are "keeping an eye" on atrocity sites so that they are not tampered with.

Hunting down indicted war criminals, however, is still not on the mission agenda, though NATO troops are on the alert to apprehend any that they come across.

"They are going to come out with egg on their face," said one senior UN adviser, who asked not to be named. "They interpret their mandate so narrowly, then they creep and creep."

Another UN official agrees that until now the expansion of the mission has been discreet. "Their biggest fear of all is mission creep - it's Somalia and the UN mission here - and they are being sucked in," he said.

A Catch-22

Eager as military commanders are to avoid any deeper engagement in Bosnia - which may be difficult to pull back from when their mandate expires in nine months - the recognition of the importance of civilian rebuilding has created a Catch-22.

President Clinton, with his eyes on re-election, has promised that all 18,400 US troops deployed in Bosnia will withdraw completely by the end of the year.

European allies have said they will follow suit, arguing like the Americans that Bosnia will have been given a strong chance to make its own peace.

But already Carl Bildt, the top civilian official charged with implementing nonmilitary aspects of the accord, is asking that a small force remain. "We need something after [NATO], though not a 60,000-man force," Mr. Bildt said. "Reconstruction will take much longer than one year. Almost everything depends on a feeling of overall security, for which some kind of military presence is required."

Few nations have so far provided the $5.1 billion that Bildt says is crucial over three years to jump-start reconstruction, and to show Bosnians a "peace dividend."

But a Pentagon intelligence assessment this week reportedly concludes that without that aid, Bosnia is likely to slip back into ethnic warfare after NATO forces pull out.