US Arms Weaker Side for Bosnia After NATO
To offset well-armed Serbs, a 'tenuous' Muslim-Croat force will get $100 million in equipment, plus training.
In a ramshackle supply depot that once supported the Serb siege of Sarajevo, tightly packed rows of French battle tanks cover the floor of a cavernous hangar. Sunlight passes through a massive hole punched in the ceiling by NATO bombers, casting light on tanks, Egyptian-supplied artillery pieces, and a pair of stray Yugoslav armored vehicles.Skip to next paragraph
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Across a yard littered with Serb vehicles damaged in the 1995 air strikes, another building houses US-supplied armored personnel carriers and M60 tanks also awaiting disbursement to the new Muslim-Croat Bosnian army. The massive cache of heavy weapons is meant to ensure that Sarajevo will never again be placed under siege.
As the peace process in Bosnia stumbles along - local elections were held over the weekend - a US-led effort is quietly providing arms and training to the Bosnian Muslim and Croat armies in an effort to achieve a military balance with the Bosnian Serbs. Should the 1995 Dayton agreement's vision of a united and peaceful Bosnian state fail to become a reality, Washington is seeking to shore up the tenuous alliance between Muslims and Croats and ensure that together they can deter future Serb aggression if and when NATO-led peacekeepers leave the region.
It's a difficult task. The Muslim-led Bosnian government army (ABiH) and the Croatian Defense Council (HVO) fought bitter battles against each other in 1994, when the HVO launched an offensive to create an ethnically pure Croatian statelet in Bosnia. Muslim-Croat relations remain frosty, with travel across ethnic lines often dangerous and sometimes deadly.
Uniting old adversaries
"Obviously, we're not going to have comfortable relations overnight," a US official here acknowledges. "But we're 1,000 miles down the road from where we started a year ago. Back then it was very hard to get them to sit down in the same room together, and when they did it was a verbal food fight."
The food fights are over for the time being. In the halls of the joint Federation Defense Ministry in Sarajevo, uniformed HVO and ABiH officers carrying briefcases can be seen walking the halls together between meetings, or greeting one another on the stairs. But the ministry remains only semifunctional because most other joint ministries and government institutions at both the federation and national level don't function at all due to a lack of trust among the three ethnic groups.
"Civil-military relations remain difficult because the civilian implementation of Dayton has gone so slowly," says Federation Defense Minister Ante Jelavic, an ethnic Croat whose secretary has the flags of the HVO and Bosnian Croat statelet on her desk. "This is to be the army of Croats and Muslims in Bosnia. There must be a clear civilian chain of command and many checks built into the system to ensure this army does not break apart."
Sources say the HVO remains closely tied to the Ministry of Defense in Croatia proper, and is expected to remain so until the integration of the army and necessary civilian institutions like the federation parliament become a reality. Even when the army is finally integrated, the two armies will remain separate up to the brigade-level. In the event of war, brigades fall under the command of an integrated general staff headed by a Muslim general.