EU troops not ready to take on Bosnian role, says Nato chief

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Nato's military commander has cast doubt over plans to launch the European Union's biggest military mission - a peace-keeping operation in Bosnia - in a sign of new transatlantic tensions.

General James Jones, a United States Marine and Nato's supreme allied commander in Europe, said the proposed date of 2004 might be "too early" for the EU to step in. He also questioned whether a European military mission in Bosnia would be needed.

Nato's 13,000-strong Stabilisation Force (S-For) in Bosnia is in charge of peace-keeping, although the EU does have a policing mission there. Last year, the EU said it was ready to take over the military side of the operation to help US troops redeploy elsewhere.

While the US initially seemed anxious to scale down its force in the Balkans, it has been having second thoughts. Washington sees the region as increasingly important for counter-terrorism operations, and has been less enthusiastic about the EU's military ambitions since the transatlantic rift over Iraq.

General Jones's comments caused irritation in Brussels. "We would not have announced our readiness to take over the S-For mission unless we were confident we were ready to undertake such a task," one EU source said.

The EU already has small military missions in Macedonia and Congo, and is contemplating a third in Moldova. But none are on the scale of the S-For operation in Bosnia, which would test the EU's ability to mount a large military deployment.

Brussels might be better advised to concentrate on boosting its capability to deploy a robust police force, General Jones suggested. "If Bosnia keeps going the way it is, sooner rather than later the only thing that is required there is police, tough police," he said.

"But if you can get the rule of law and the enforcement of law with a foothold in Bosnia, which seems to be moving in that direction right now, we will get to the point where the military equation will be replaced by a police equation.

"Lord Ashdown has said it is premature for S-For to be replaced by the EU and I would pay serious attention to what Lord Ashdown says."

Diplomats expect S-For to scale down its operations early next year before more radical changes. A spokesman for Lord Ashdown of Norton sub Hamdon, the UN high representative in Bosnia, said: "The condition for any successful follow-up to S-For is that it enjoys the ... full support of the EU, Nato and the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina."

General Jones said the eventual EU mission might be a military one, such as it is undertaking in Macedonia, but "it would be essentially a policing action". Although Lord Ashdown backs the idea of a European mission, he insists changes need to be made on the ground first.

* A UN policeman was killed late on Sunday when gunmen fired at his car in northern Kosovo. The officer, who was not identified, was travelling in a UN police car near the town of Leposavic, 30 miles north of the capital, Pristina. The victim worked with border police in an area inhabited predominantly by ethnic Serbs.