British, French Forces Eager To Back Up UN in Bosnia
'We'd like to be used; the UN's been pushed around enough,' says one Scottish soldier. But he has no orders to protect Bosnian civilians.
MT. IGMAN, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA
UNITED Nations military officials are eagerly pouncing on temporary signs that the Bosnian Serbs are heeding new Western muscle-flexing around Sarajevo.
The approximately 300,000 residents of the Bosnian capital are receiving some relief as humanitarian aid convoys sporadically - very sporadically - enter Sarajevo through Serb lines.
Bosnian Serb military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic was ''remarkably compliant'' in discussing the convoys Monday with UN Bosnia commander Lt. Gen. Rupert Smith, say UN officials.
The number of times Bosnian Serb guns fired at vehicles speeding down Sarajevo's winding, rutted dirt road to Mt. Igman - littered with the hulks of bombed out trucks and cars - has dropped slightly.
The explanation for the uncharacteristic Bosnian Serb largess? ''We are a deterrent,'' says French Brig. Gen. Andre Soubirou, commander of the Rapid Reaction Force's multinational brigade. ''You can see there's less shelling in Sarajevo since we were deployed there.''
General Soubirou, seated with the British, Dutch, and French commanders of the Rapid Reaction Force units that began deploying on Mt. Igman two weeks ago, declared the first-ever deployment of the new heavily armed UN force a success.
In a press conference filled with what can only be described as French military panache, Soubirou said the new 11,000 troop Rapid Reaction Force was emerging as an effective tool to protect UN peacekeepers and ensure food convoys reach Sarajevo and other besieged Muslim enclaves. The unprecedented force was created in June by frustrated Western powers after the Bosnian Serbs took 370 UN peacekeepers hostage.
Seated in a grove of trees that looked and felt strangely like a movie set, a mammoth French AMX-10 tank and two grim-looking, sub-machine-gun-wielding French and British bodyguards glowered behind him.
''We believe at this point deterrence is the best weapon,'' Soubirou says, as a 20-foot-long tank barrel loomed over his head. ''The people in front of us have to know that at any point we are able to deliver all of our force, all of our power.''
The new military muscle is leading the indomitable Bosnian Serbs to think twice before blocking a convoy, lobbing a shell at a UN compound, or taking a peacekeeper hostage, according to Rapid Reaction Force officials.
But civilian UN officials caution that the Bosnian Serb army - busy ''ethnically cleansing'' approximately 60,000 civilians from the fallen UN ''safe areas'' of Srebrenica and Zepa last month - may have been too busy to take on the latest pesky UN threat.
''There's been less shooting on Igman, and it seems the Serbs have been less confrontational [with aid convoys],'' says a Sarajevo-based UN official. ''But I'm not sure the reason they're not shooting are those guns up on Igman.''
Following the death of two French peacekeepers and wounding of three peacekeepers in two separate July 22 shelling attacks, 12 British 105-millimeter guns with a range of 10 miles, 10 French tanks, 12 heavy French mortars, 20 British armored fighting vehicles, 600 French Foreign Legionnaires, and 400 British and Dutch troops were deployed on Igman to deter further attacks.
Immediately after the shelling attacks, French heavy mortars fired 84 rounds at the Bosnian Serb mortar positions that launched the attacks. The positions were reportedly leveled.
Other than a British Sea King helicopter that was fired on by small arms, few major attacks on UN positions have been launched since the British guns arrived on Igman. UN convoys to resupply the 4,000 UN troops in Sarajevo that use the Mt. Igman road haven't been fired on.
Dozens of young British soldiers busily stacked high-explosive and smoke shells around the freshly dug-in British guns on Mt. Igman, a wooded 4,500-foot peak that hosted ski jumping and other winter sports events in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.
As dozens of British and French military vehicles painted with camouflage - not UN white - swarmed over the mountain, bombed-out ski chalets were transformed into storage sites. French Foreign Legionnaires could be spied cleaning their weapons in small encampments amid towering pines.
Bravado was not in short supply.
''We'd like to be used; the UN's been pushed around enough,'' says Scott Hunter, a Glasgow, Scotland, native and bombardier on one of the 105 millimeter guns. ''I hope we get used. We haven't done this much not to fire.''
UN officials caution that the force will not be used to secure a permanent land route into Sarajevo, but promise ''robust'' responses to any Serb attacks on any UN convoys or peacekeepers.
To the dismay of the Muslim-led Bosnian government, the force has strict orders not to protect Bosnian civilians or deter Bosnian Serb attacks on civilian targets. While resupply convoys for UN troops coming over Mt. Igman have not been fired on, UN convoys with food for Bosnian civilians continue to enter the city only intermittently.
No political ammunition
A French-led multinational brigade is based in Tomislavgrad, near Bosnia's southern border with Croatia. And a British brigade is headquartered in the central Bosnian town of Vitez. The final contingent of the Rapid Reaction Force, a 6,000-man British air mobile brigade equipped with attack and transport helicopters, is expected to arrive this month.
British Capt. Graham Porter, who commands six of the British guns on Igman, worries that the new UN firepower might go the way of so many other Western threats in Bosnia.
''If we sit here, and the convoys keep getting in, that's one thing. But if we sit here, the convoys don't get in, and do nothing, that's another,'' Porter says as he surveyed his guns. ''We should either do the job or get out.''