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NATO Simulates an Exit For UN From Bosnia

Generals consider political impact of US soldiers being killed

BOSNIAN Serb military commander Ratko Mladic appears on US television wearing the dog tags of a dead American soldier and calls for revenge against NATO.

Bosnian Muslim civilians beg UN peacekeepers from Muslim nations not to withdraw, while Bosnian Serbs allow Ukrainian peacekeepers -

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fellow Orthodox Christians - safe passage out of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

And an Islamic terrorist group, the ``Bosnian Liberation Army,'' takes US soldiers hostage as NATO refuses to bomb Serb forces killing hundreds of Muslim civilians.

Doomsday scenarios like these aren't humanitarian aid group exaggerations designed to scare the United Nations into staying in Bosnia-Herzegovina or a Cable News Network's producer's fantasy. They are a handful of the situations nearly 1,000 NATO personnel were forced to deal with in a large-scale computerized rehearsal of a UN pullout from Bosnia held in Germany two weeks ago.

``It's not going to be pretty, I can tell you that,'' warns United States Adm. Leighton Smith, who participated in the exercise and would oversee such an operation. ``A withdrawal is not something we want to get involved in.''

Despite a visit to Croatia by US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke earlier this week, Croatia is standing by its decision to order all UN peacekeepers to begin leaving Croatia by the end of this month.

But Croatia may be willing to accept some sort of replacement force for UN troops. ``It looks like something may be developing,'' said a UN official in Zagreb who asked not to be named.

Mr. Holbrooke and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman reportedly discussed a smaller force of 4,000 to 5,000 peacekeepers. The force would patrol all the borders of the Serbs' self-declared ``Krajina Serb Republic,'' easing Serb concerns of an impeding attack from the Croatian side and easing Croatian and Bosnian Muslim concerns over Krajina Serbs crossing into neighboring Bosnia and fighting.

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But diplomats cautioned that the Krajina Serbs may not accept such a deal, fearing a cutoff of support from fellow Serbs. But just in case, NATO planners are busily trying to prepare for possibly aiding the withdrawal of 25,000 peacekeepers from Bosnia.

In interviews at NATO's southern command headquarters in Naples, Italy, senior officials outlined a massive and complex operation that could last from six to eight months, involve more than 40,000 troops, and result in significant NATO and civilian casualties.

The operation would be carried out by NATO's new Multinational Rapid Reaction Corps. Thousands of US troops would play a dangerous role in the operation, carrying out the delicate withdrawal of peacekeepers from three surrounded Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia. The troops would also be helicoptered into ``hot spots'' where reinforcements are needed.

``That's where the Marine units come in,'' one NATO official explains. ``Some would be held back in Italy and be dropped in where needed and pulled out once things were stabilized.''

NATO officials foresee large operational delays, waning support from Western governments as the operation drags on, and both sides staging attacks to make the other appear to be the perpetrator.

In the exercise, NATO officials assumed that there would be no clear mandate from the UN Security Council as to whether UN ``safe areas'' should be protected by NATO forces during the withdrawal. In one of several scenarios, NATO turns down a direct request from the Bosnian government to bomb Serb forces attacking a surrounded Muslim enclave.

The NATO exercise also assumed the pullout would be under a single NATO command, not the much criticized ``dual trigger'' joint NATO-UN command structure that NATO forces currently operate under in Bosnia.

NATO officials were emphatic that all of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) troops in Bosnia, come under NATO control once withdrawal begins. But no official agreement has been worked out with the UN, which observers expect to demand some kind of authority in the operation.

``There's still considerable debate about what will happen and how it will happen,'' says one NATO official. ``If UNPROFOR tries to pull itself out, it's going to cause a lot of problems. It's a lot easier to pull someone out before it becomes a mess.''

In Croatia, where a withdrawal is seen be easier and NATO has no official plans to aid in an evacuation, UN officials say they would try to pull out on their own with NATO forces being called in only if trouble erupts. UN officials say they will be forced to withdraw from Bosnia if they lose crucial logistics bases in Croatia.

NATO officials were also emphatic that nay threat posed to their troops by any side in the conflict will be dealt with aggressively.

``Force protection is going to be my number one priority,'' Admiral Smith says. ``We will not tolerate people trying to take us on or doing our people harm.''

The operation would begin with NATO forces securing strategic ports and the airport in Split on the Croatian coast. NATO officials say nearly all UN troops and equipment would be moved out by the road. That would be an extremely difficult task in Bosnia where mountain roads are in poor shape and ridges provide excellent cover for anyone intent on harassing a withdrawal.

Flying troops out would take too long and officials fear transport planes could easily be shot down by hostile forces. Both the Sarajevo and Tuzla airports in Central Bosnia could be used for refueling US attack helicopters providing air cover, but Serb forces are located near both airports.

Smith and other NATO officials, falling in line with other Western officials urging Croatia to let the UN stay, said a pullout should be avoided at all costs.

``Where does it get you? What does the West do after we pull out?'' asked one NATO official. ``You've got a wider war and a humanitarian disaster, and we're back to where we were in '92.''

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