In Bosnia: Fewer Troops, Big Job

As US commits to follow-on force, refugees are testy, weapons are flowing in

Saying that the conditions for lasting peace still do not exist in Bosnia, President Clinton on Friday committed 8,500 American troops to remain in Bosnia through June 1998 as part of a follow-on NATO security force that is expected to include 30,000 troops.

"Where we can make a difference, we must act and we must lead," Mr. Clinton said Friday.

But even as NATO troop strength is being significantly scaled back, its mission is becoming more complex. The challenges it faces include:

*Bosnia's refugees are becoming increasingly impatient at not being able to return to their homes because of continued ethnic hostility.

Some of Bosnia's 2 million refugees have recently watched - sometimes from a neighboring hill - their houses being blown up, in an effort to make sure they don't return.

American and Russian troops faced the stones, fists, and insults of hundreds of Muslim refugees last week as they prevented the Muslims from entering the Serb-held village of Gajevi.

"What happened in Gajevi threatens to destroy what little area of agreement still exists between the factions on this issue," says Montgomery Meigs, commander of the US First Infantry Division.

NATO soldiers called in to stop a firefight between returning Muslims and Bosnian Serb police last week witnessed the worst scenes of ethnic violence since the war ended.

The UN says it wants to repatriate most of Bosnia's refugees during the summer of 1997. But Major General Meigs and other NATO commanders point out that with fewer troops, they won't be able to "place a tank in front of every home" of refugees who have moved into hostile territory.

*The Bosnian Army is growing more confident and is well-armed.

The Bosnian Muslim-Croat defense forces are set to receive the balance of $100-million worth of sophisticated military equipment from the United States and several moderate Islamic countries this week under the American-led train and equip program. They will also get $400-million worth of military training from a US firm.

The Bosnian Muslims are also reported to be receiving military equipment from Turkey, Iran, and Malaysia. The US has already admitted that it allowed weapons to come into Bosnia from hard-line Islamic countries during the war in defiance of an international arms embargo against the former Yugoslavia.

The arms and training are having an effect. The Bosnian Army is becoming increasingly cocky and is threatening to back up Muslim refugees who try to return home.

Some analysts here think it will launch an offensive against Bosnian Serb-held territory if the next year does not prove that Muslims and Croats can return to their homes on the Serb side peacefully.

"Our actions ... are about keeping armed settlement from reigniting the powder keg of factional distrust that could lead to another war," Meigs says.

*An increasingly fractured and more-volatile Republika Srpska.

Bosnian Serb leaders are worried that the increasingly well-armed Muslims might be considering a future offensive against the 49 percent of the territory the Serbs now control.

Last week, Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic tried to fire the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, Gen. Ratko Mladic, who is widely believed to be controlled by Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic. Sources in the Bosnian Serb capital, Pale, say Mr. Milosevic seems to want to wash his hands of the Bosnian Serbs and might order General Mladic to let Bosnian Serb territory be conquered by the Muslim-Croat government.

A week after Plavsic dismissed Mladic, he remains in power. NATO sources admit privately that the rift between Bosnian Serb politicians and the army could lead to a breakdown and loss of control over the army.

*Is NATO a victim of own success?

NATO troops are asked to do everything from provide nationwide security for elections, rebuild bridges, run airports, provide security at the exhumation of mass graves, arrest war criminals, help refugees return home, and make sure the Serb representative of Bosnia's new three-man presidency isn't assassinated when he comes into Sarajevo for twice-weekly meetings.

One year after NATO's arrival, it has helped bring Bosnia back to life: The soldiers of the warring factions have gone back to their barracks or homes; roads and bridges have been rebuilt; a new multiethnic government has been elected; children have returned noisily to school; and Sarajevo once more is plagued by traffic jams.

But NATO officials suggest that confidence in their forces' abilities may be too high. They point out that NATO cannot replace the genuine good will of the former warring factions to make peace last in Bosnia.

NATO's focus "should be preventing a renewal of fighting so that reconstruction and reconciliation can accelerate," Clinton said Friday. But many of Bosnia's tensions are unresolved. And NATO forces aren't willing to enforce indefinitely a peace that Bosnians may not be willing to accept.


*Current number of American peacekeeping troops in Bosnia and Croatia: 11,984

*Total number troops in NATO-led mission in the region: 48,180

*Proposed number of American troops in a follow-on force: 8,500

*Proposed total size of the follow-on force: 30,000

*Number of Bosnians who have returned to their homes since the war ended: 250,000

*Number of refugees who have yet to return home: 2 million

*Number of people indicted for war crimes in former Yugoslavia: 75

*Number of those indicted for war crimes who are in custody: 7

*Number of land mines in Bosnia: 3 million

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