Garrison stands by for fresh orders

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The Independent Online
THE Bosnian Serb rejection of the Vance-Owen peace plan on Wednesday night will make no immediate difference to the British UN garrison in central Bosnia, its future commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Alastair Duncan, said yesterday.

The garrison has no more idea than anyone else what will happen next. Immediate air strikes by US warplanes on Serbian positions to the east are one option, especially given the surprise value. But because this is not a direct confrontation involving the United States - such as that which led to the US attack on Libya in 1986, for example - it is thought more likely that there will be a UN Security Council resolution and then a further deadline to the Serbs, with direct action possible next week.

Large-scale reinforcements for the ground forces here, if authorised, will not arrive for weeks, and the third - perhaps most likely - option is that the West will wait until reinforcements are on the ground, as well as possessing a new mandate, before action is taken.

The local Serbian commander, Bogdan Ristic of the 22nd Serb brigade, has warned that if that happens, he will shell the British UN troops who are within artillery range of the Vlaska feature, north of Travnik and about 15km (10 miles) away, where heavy Serbian guns have been reported. The outgoing British commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Stewart, of the Cheshire Regiment, refused to comment on what the Serbs had and where.

The Serbian commander said: 'The Serbs will suffer the least. Muslim, Croat and UN forces will perish in large numbers. This is no threat. I am telling you the truth. If you think you can bomb Serbian targets in this way you should start right now. You should not bother with any more talks. You will hit us on the outside but not on the inside.'

Lt-Col Alastair Duncan, of the Prince of Wales' Own Regiment, reached Vitez on Wednesday, with a large contingent of infantry. They arrived in lorries after dark and a 14-hour journey over the road made treacherous by torrential rain. Speaking in the garden of the British commander's residence opposite the fortified camp yesterday, he said he had had to wait for UN orders.

'Let's wait and see,' he said. 'The situation hasn't changed at all. It's the same as it has been for the last six months. We'll carry on as we are until I receive orders from the UN.'

The Cheshires recently practised 'orange' and 'red' alerts, when everyone moves inside in case of artillery attack. Lt-Col Duncan said there that another practice would probably be held once his battalion was installed after the middle of the month.

Lt-Col Duncan began taking over from Lt-Col Stewart yesterday. The two colonels left on a tour of the area in the morning. They headed into Vitez, where Lt-Col Duncan had his first experience of negotiating with the HVO - the Bosnian Croat army who control much of this part of Bosnia and are in some places working in uneasy alliance with the Bosnian army. The Warriors carrying the two commanding officers skirted a huge crater made by a Croatian car-bomb which had been intended for the mosque but wrecked a Muslim centre.

Asked what he thought of the Bosnian Serb rejection of the Vance-Owen plan, Lt-Col Stewart said: 'It's well above us, isn't it? On the ground we've seen so many promises that are not followed through - that's Bosnia, isn't it?' His advice to Lt-Col Duncan was: 'Don't trust any promise until it happens on the ground. Then believe it.'