Commander in someone else's war: Britain's robust, low-key military image in Bosnia has brought both respect and criticism

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The Independent Online
'THE British are very professional, very cool, but arrogant,' General Praliac of the Bosnian Croat Army (HVO) told Alastair Duncan who has commanded the battalion group centred on his regiment for the last six months. It is an understandable interpretation of his command style, and Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan, of the Prince of Wales's own Yorkshire regiment, takes it as a compliment.

Today he hands over to Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Williams of the Coldstream Guards. Lt-Col Williams is as different from Lt-Col Duncan as the latter was from his predecessor Lieutenant-Colonel 'Bosnian Bob' Stewart, and his working conditions may differ even more, for this is a kaleidoscope of a war. 'It is not my war,' Lt-Col Duncan insists. 'We're just in it.'

The locals respected Lt-Col Duncan's robust style. When local forces, sometimes in defiance of orders from commanders, shot at the British UN troops, the British shot back, killing at least 18. Although Lt-Col Duncan's battalion suffered a few injuries, some serious, there were no British killed on this tour.

'The rule of the gun is what rules here,' he admits, sadly. 'The senior commanders here were unconcerned. We've shot a number of people. I'm not proud of that at all, but it was necessary at the time.

'We had to demonstrate robustness. It was within our mandate and we fired back.'

Lt-Col Duncan rejects suggestions that he was told - or chose - to keep a lower profile than his predecessor, whose book on his Bosnian tour has just appeared.

'There were no instructions to keep a low profile. I came here as a commanding officer. I'm me. If, then, my pictures appear on the TV, well, I was terrified of the media to start with.' He believes that in the middle of someone else's war, his low-key, robust approach is the only one that works.

It is very different from that of the Swedes in the Nordic battalion who have taken over from the British in the Tuzla area, and have intervened to save life and property.

'We've delivered 28,000 tons of aid,' the colonel said. 'Every convoy that has come into my area has got through. Indirectly, our presence here has saved lives - I've no doubt of that.

'It is actually not my war. We can stop things. I believe it would be wrong for me, sitting here, to try to change the outcome of the war. It has to be fought to its natural conclusion.' Would that not prolong the war?

'That's speculation. We're keeping people alive.'

So what had the last six months taught him about peace support?

'With peace-keeping operations, every one is unique. There will be a different country, a different set of circumstances, a different mandate. You cannot take a template and say because it worked in one situation, it will work in another. You adapt to the situation as it is on the ground and not as you would wish it to be. You work within your mandate. 'On occasions I have stretched it to the limit. It is very important to know exactly what your aim is and you have to be absolutely clear before you take an action - be it using force or a lesser act - that you understand the ramifications, because I've found here that the short-term solution gives a long-term problem.'

His worst moment was 'the very difficult decision when two buses were mortared at the Novi Travnik T-junction and we had 90 people sitting outside the front gate and I didn't let them in. This is not a refugee camp'.

SARAJEVO - The UN military commander in former Yugoslavia warned yesterday that his troops were on the point of using force to defend themselves while escorting aid convoys in Bosnia, Reuter reports. General Jean Cot said all sides in the Bosnian civil war had gone too far in their repeated attacks on relief convoys.

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