EU army takes over in Bosnia where hatreds still simmer despite peace

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By the main road near Banja Luka in Bosnia are small charred homes that once belonged to Croats. Nobody lives in them any more. Graffiti on the walls says "Arkan was here" and "here is what Tudjman brought you".

By the main road near Banja Luka in Bosnia are small charred homes that once belonged to Croats. Nobody lives in them any more. Graffiti on the walls says "Arkan was here" and "here is what Tudjman brought you".

Arkan was a notorious Serb warlord. Franjo Tudjman led neighbouring Croatia to independence in 1991. Both are dead now. But enmity lives on.

This is the atmosphere into which European troops will march today. For, more than a decade after Europe failed to avert bloody civil war in the Balkans, the EU today takes over peace-keeping duties in Bosnia in a crucial test for the union's defence ambitions.

Around 7,000 troops will assume Nato's military role, serving under a British general commanding an EU military mission, EU-For, expected to stay for around three years.

Although the EU has undertaken peace-keeping work in Macedonia and Congo, neither mission compared with Bosnia in scale or symbolic importance. Operation Althea gives the EU a chance to atone for its impotence in the 1990s and demonstrate its increased foreign policy clout.

"Bosnia will tell us if Europe can deliver on the ground," Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, the international community's high representative in Bosnia, said. "This is also a turning point for Bosnia on its road to the EU," he added.

Aware that the EU's failure to intervene in the 1990s has not been forgotten, General Sir John Reith, the EU's operation commander, promised: "The population will see no difference other than the change of badges. It will be entirely seamless. Anybody who was even thinking about testing our mettle would see that it is not worth their while."

Today's handover ceremony is being kept deliberately low-key to reinforce the message that this is business as usual. But the operation is very different from that launched in December 1995, when around 60,000 Nato troops were deployed. Now a force of 7,000 soldiers is sufficient as crime and corruption pose bigger threats than ethnic clashes.

Yet tension remains. Bosnia is divided along Muslim, Croat and Serb ethnic lines, each group bearing bitter memories.

Even so, the prospect of the EU mounting such an operation would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Today's move underlines the massive progress in creating an EU defence capability since the UK and France agreed to back the idea in 1998.

Troops from 22 of the 25 EU nations, along with 11 non-EU nations, will play a part and the force's commander in Bosnia will be another British officer, Major General David Leakey.

Analysts say obstacles to the emerging Bosnian state remain huge. The war ended in December 1995, following the internationally-sponsored Dayton Peace agreement, having claimed 250,000 lives and displaced two million out of the country's 4.3 million population.

Atrocities included the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serbs. Three years of siege of Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serb army left 10,000 dead. Despite $5bn (£2.6m) pumped into the country since 1995, the economy is weak, unemployment is 40 per cent, foreign investment is sparse and corruption endemic. Reconciliation between ethnic groups is far away, analysts say, because of the widespread ethnic cleansing that became a trademark of the war.

The handover is unlikely to provoke much celebration. "It's all the same," said Milan Jovicevic, a 52-year-old teacher from Banja Luka. "Things are not improving and no one knows when they will. Yes, there's peace and that is OK. But there's little beside."

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