British general to lead UN forces in Bosnia: Falklands veteran takes charge as Western governments prepare public opinion for withdrawal of peace-keeping troops

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A BRITISH soldier, Lieutenant-General Michael Rose, was named yesterday as the new commander of UN forces in Bosnia at a time when Western countries are warning that they may remove their peace- keeping forces from the region.

General Rose, who served with the Special Air Service in the 1982 Falklands war against Argentina, will succeed a Belgian commander, Lieutenant- General Francis Briquemont, who is being hastily removed after he criticised the UN for pursuing an incoherent policy in Bosnia.

The handover takes place as Western governments prepare public opinion for the withdrawal of their soldiers from Bosnia, a measure that could condemn the region to still more anarchy and warfare. The Western powers are disenchanted with what they see as the cynicism of Serbian, Croatian and Muslim political and military leaders, whose professed desire for a settlement has been accompanied by almost uninterrupted battles and violent expulsions of civilian communities over the last 21 months.

The Bosnian Muslim President, Alija Izetbegovic, and the Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, will meet in Bonn on Saturday in an effort to end the Muslim-Croat war in central Bosnia. But after two days of Croatian-Muslim talks in Vienna, Lord Owen, the international mediator, said yesterday: 'As they talk politically, militarily they are building up their forces in central Bosnia. That's the reality.'

The main Western countries with forces in Bosnia under a UN mandate are Britain, Canada, France and Spain. In what look like co-ordinated public statements, representatives of each government have said in recent weeks that they are considering moving out troops as this winter draws to a close.

One reason is that little or no progress is being made in 'peace talks' between the warring parties. Another is the argument that Western soldiers' lives are being jeopardised for what appears to be an increasingly obscure cause.

Spanish forces, operating in the dangerous terrain of central and southern Bosnia, have suffered most casualties. But all countries have found that their humanitarian aid work often falls foul of gunmen who rob and shoot at convoys, and civilians who surround and harass UN units that are suspected of aiding the enemy side. British troops control logistics operations from the Adriatic coast to central Bosnia, and General Rose would be well-placed to supervise a withdrawal of UN forces.

Balkan specialists say Western countries may not pull out their forces completely from the former Yugoslav area, but would offer to keep some units in places such as Belgrade, Zagreb and Split. From there they could send out limited humanitarian expeditions into Bosnia, while cutting costs and reducing risks to their soldiers.

Canada's government has expressed outrage at an incident on 22 December in which 11 Canadian soldiers were captured by Bosnian Serbs, disarmed and shot at in what has been portrayed in the Canadian media as a 'mock execution'. 'This is a very cumbersome situation, and we don't know exactly what the role of our soldiers is there. There is a limit sometimes to being a Boy Scout,' said Canada's new Prime Minister, Jean Chretien.

In another typical remark, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who now heads the foreign affairs committee of the French parliament, said that it was time to suspend the Geneva peace talks, co-sponsored by the UN and the European Union. 'People are made to fight on the ground, and then there are very nice negotiations around an international table to pocket the results of fighting on the ground. We must stop that,' he said.

While broadly subscribing to such views, the British and other governments appear to believe that political and public opinion at home might react negatively if the UN contingents left quickly and hundreds of thousands of Bosnian civilians could be portrayed as being left to their fates. Hence the attempt to influence public opinion now, while making plans for the gradual removal of troops after the worst winter conditions are over.

(Photograph omitted)