Blue-beret UK troops arrive 'to open' Split

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The Independent Online
BRITISH soldiers arriving yesterday from Gutersloh in Germany did not know what to expect. Inland, towards Vitez in Bosnia, where a British battalion will be based, snow is already lying on the ground. So the British soldiers brought winter woollens. In Split it was a balmy 18C. 'A step up this. Where we've come from it's chucking it down,' said one soldier as he boarded the bus.

While the soldiers were concentrating on down-to-earth matters, the environment in which they will work has been changing. In Bosnia, the Croats and Muslims, who fought together against the Serbs, are fighting each other.

Split retains its holiday resort atmosphere - an Adriatic town with palms and pavement cafes. Above it, whitish-grey marshes warn of a harsher world inland. Beyond the thin coastal strip of Croatia lies Bosnia. As the British troops in their light-blue berets struggled out of the airport, other berets - the royal blue of the Croatian army - were evident.

Yesterday, the first flight arrived on time - a US Hercules bringing signallers to form the British brigade headquarters. The second flight, bringing the staff officers, was delayed. But a huge C-141 Starlifter arrived carrying armoured Land Rovers. The US contribution to the aid operation is mainly in providing the airlift. All the British troops arriving yesterday were carried by the Americans.

Yesterday's arrivals bring the number of British troops in the Bosnia force to about 370 - a fraction of the total of 2,300. Armoured vehicles left Emden in Germany by sea yesterday and will be here in about 10 days.

Brigadier Andrew Cumming, a 17th-21st Lancer, commands the UK forces in Bosnia. At present it is a British formation reporting directly to the UK. Only when he is satisfied it is ready will command of the battalion group switch to the multinational headquarters at Kiseljak, about 20 miles west of Sarajevo, under the command of a French Major General, Philippe Morillon.

Of the 250 British troops who were here before yesterday, 200 were living on board the landing ship Sir Bedivere. The remaining 50 were in the Medina apartments, 15 miles north of Split, which they share with refugees and the French.

Brigadier Cumming took the news that half his headquarters had been delayed calmly, puffing on a cigarette in the cafe at Split airport. He has been here two weeks and 10 days ago led a reconnaissance party as far as Vitez.

'My objectives were twofold,' he said. 'To secure accommodation for the battalion and to start laying plans - meet people, particularly the UNHCR - and, as an aside, to meet the local Croat- Muslim leaders.'

But although united against the Serbs, they were now falling out. 'My personal feeling is that it is extremely sad,' Brigadier Cumming continued. 'They are brought up together, they live together. . . . It's obviously a power struggle and someone is going to come out on top.'

Brigadier Cumming's own task is 'to open up this place (Split) so that we can receive people, to give them the initial briefings so that we can deploy them up country'.

Everyone is conscious of the impending Balkan winter. The appropriately named Tomislavgrad is the jumping-off place for the UK convoy escorts. 'From there it's whichever route is best.'

The roads up to Tomislavgrad are considered good but an RAF officer doubted their ability to stand up to the 25-ton Warriors.

The last of the soldiers found their way to the coach. 'Is that it?' one asked. 'You are it,' the sergeant said. It was time to go.

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