British peace-keepers in Bosnia are moving towards the front lines of northern Bosnia to prepare for their renaissance in 10 days' time as heavily armed Nato troops on a mission to enforce the Dayton peace plan. But with blue berets still in evidence, they are forced to stand by as local Croat forces torch and loot the towns surrendered to the Serbs under the Dayton plan.
In the past two weeks, around 60 per cent of housing in Sipovo and about 30 per cent in Mrkonjic Grad, as well as at least four neighbouring villages, have been razed by Bosnian Croat soldiers - after being stripped of stoves, fridges, furniture and other goods. The level of arson has fallen, but flames and smoke mark the latest targets in the area; countless other houses are roofless and scorched.
"We immediately protested at the highest levels to the [Bosnian Croat militia] that this was sending all the wrong signals," said Brigadier Andrew Dannat, the commander of British UN troops, who will lead a British brigade in Nato's peace implementation force (I-For). The burning began in earnest about 10 days ago - just after the signing of the Dayton plan that will return the area to Serb control - but has diminished in intensity since the British protests.
However, a cloud of white smoke rose from a house on the hill overlooking Mrkonjic Grad on Sunday, while a building in Sipovo smouldered gently, its roof charred and caved in, just down the street from an HVO truck and a small group of soldiers.
Ominously, one main bridge into Mrkonjic Grad has been wired with explosives and is ready to blow. There seems to be very little battle damage in either town but dozens of buildings are blackened by fire, discarded booty lies all around and timbers stand ready to help new blazes. The roots of this wanton destruction - pure spite against the returning Serbs - can be seen nearby: the weed-filled shells of Muslim and Croat houses burnt in the same way by Serbs earlier in the war.
UN officials say they have no mandate to stop the vandalism, but are extremely concerned about the precedent set - especially in the Serb-held suburbs of Sarajevo that are due to revert to government rule next month. Still, the burning and looting can be seen as a good omen for the British division of I-For: it is clear the Bosnian Croat militia does not intend to contest the Dayton demand that it withdraw from the area.
Brig Dannat said the civilian Croat authorities are pulling out already. Some critics fear UN inaction over the Croat destruction - especially in the case of troops who will merely switch their blue berets for green - risks consolidating the culture of compromise (some would say appeasement) that characterised the UN mission.
The brigadier rejects such arguments. "I expect to have a totally different regime in a totally different environment after 19 December," he said. He is ready to use overwhelming force if the warring factions fail to comply with their Dayton obligations.
"One would threaten and then use military force that would be extremely powerful," he said. "I'll make it quite clear to the parties."
Brig Dannat, who has had extensive and, he says, effective conversations on the topic with Croat and Muslim commanders, is hoping to meet the Serb commander in Banja Luka soon to make the same point. His men are equally keen.
"We should just drive straight through," muttered one soldier, stamping his feet against the cold at a Croat checkpoint in Mrkonjic Grad that had found fault with the paperwork provided by a British convoy of Warrior armoured vehicles. They were sent back to a Croat base to discuss exactly how they would reach their destination: a prospective base for British I-For troops in the town.
The brigadier does not expect any such scenarios after 19 December.
"Freedom of movement [for I-For] is not even a discussion topic," he said. "There are no papers involved."Reuse content