Bosnia's US chief warms to his task

Click to follow
On his first full day in power, the US commander of Nato's peace implementation force in Bosnia (I-For), expressed delight at the progress made so far, which includes wresting control of vital roads into Sarajevo from the Bosnian Serbs for the first time. "I am just tickled pink with what I see already," Admiral Leighton Smith said after 24 hours in office.

The admiral yesterday met military commanders of the three warring parties when he chaired the first meeting of the Joint Military Commission, intended as a forum for the parties and the peace-keepers to address problems in implementing the Dayton peace plan.

General Rasim Delic, the Bosnian commander in chief, was in attendance but his Serb counterpart, Ratko Mladic, sent a deputy instead, presumably for fear of arrest as an indicted war criminal.

I-For officials would not comment on the meeting, which continued in the afternoon under the chairmanship of Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Walker, the British commander of Nato land forces in Bosnia.

But Admiral Smith was pleased with his portion. "We were delighted, frankly, to receive the statements of the representatives," he said at Sarajevo airport. "Each of them said they had passed instructions to their forces to co-operate fully with the Implementation Force [I-For]. We have seen that in evidence."

Signs of compliance were the dejected faces of two Serb policeman at a checkpoint near Kiseljak. Powerless to stop the flow of traffic past their barrier, now brushed aside by French I-For troops, they had come only to collect their belongings.

At another sandbagged roadblock close to the airport, where a Serb soldier shot and killed Bosnia's deputy prime minister as he sat in a French UN armoured personnel carrier in January 1993, Nato soldiers stood guard. It was a glorious sight to all who remembered the hundreds of aid convoys turned back or delayed at "Sierra Four", and the UN's inability to force Serbs to comply with promises of free movement.

The French, whose sector includes Sarajevo, like their British comrades in western Bosnia, have been quick to seize the initiative. The US commander, without the benefit of several thousand troops in place, made good with few resources, driving north across the front line from Tuzla to link up with GIs on Croatia's border.

As the first German soldiers prepared to join the peace-keeping force, a German seaman was killed in the Adriatic yesterday on a frigate enforcing the arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia.

Steffen Behrens, 25, who was struck by a dinghy being lowered into the sea, was the first German soldier to die on a mission connected with the former Yugoslavia.

The Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, one of the first of what is likely to be a flood of politicians visiting Sarajevo in peacetime, underlined the change that has taken place. "The British troops were quick to take action to demonstrate the position was now quite different than before," he said. But Carl Bildt, the High Representative co-ordinating civilian international efforts in Bosnia, warned of the need to improve life for ordinary people. "If there are not visible signs of improvement it will have a detrimental effect on the political process", he said.