Nordic saga as tanks battle to reach Tuzla: Christopher Bellamy in Vitez tracks the journey of the armour that Danish UN forces are trying to send to Bosnia

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The Independent Online
ELEVEN Leopard tanks of the Danish army are about to begin the last and most hazardous stage of a bizarre journey round Europe to join the UN's Nordic battalion based in Tuzla, in the Muslim heartland of central Bosnia.

The 42-ton tanks are now at the Adriatic port of Split, ready to move up the mountain road through the British area of responsibility and on, through even more difficult terrain over specially strengthened bridges and prepared crossings, to Tuzla.

The epic tale of tanks and tracks and boats and trains began when the vehicles were stuck at Pancevo, outside Belgrade. The original plan was to bring them in through Serb-controlled territory but the Serbs were unco-operative. Eventually they were put on railway cars and taken back out of Serbia, through Hungary and Austria and down to Trieste, whence they were shipped to Split, where they arrived a few days ago.

On Monday there was another scare. Having been moved half-way round Europe to avoid the Serbs, it was reported they were going to link the tanks' move through Croatia and Croat- and Muslim-held Bosnia to the fate of the Canadian garrison trapped in Srebrenica. 'There is linkage in everything,' said a source at UN headquarters in Kiseljak this week. But sources did not think that the Serbs could stop the tanks' deployment now. Committing the tanks to the route into central Bosnia whatever the Serbs say could be the first robust decision by the new UN commander in Bosnia, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose.

It is clear, however, that the Serbs do not want the tanks facing them. There are 10 Leopard 1 main battle tanks, with 105mm guns - the heaviest firepower so far seen among UN forces in Bosnia - and one Leopard armoured recovery vehicle. 'Tanks give so much better cover - they can stay in the hot-spots,' said Major Magnus Lavman, a Swedish liaison officer with the British UN force. 'And their observation equipment is very good: thermal imaging as well as night vision.' On a dark snowy night, militiamen or vehicles will show up as clearly as if it were day.

The Nordic battalion has been in the thick of it since it started arriving in October. It had a hectic start, with the fighting around Vares and then the Stupni Do massacre. Since then it has escorted many convoys heading from Belgrade to Tuzla, which it meets at the Muslim-Serb confrontation line. So far the battalion has been using Swedish 302 tracked armoured troop carriers, which have sufficient firepower but not enough protection to sit in the middle of a battle, monitoring what is going on. Major Lavman said the British Warrior vehicle was excellent in this respect, but the nearest the Nordic countries had to that was a tank.

The Nordics have excellent relations with the Bosnian army (BiH) and with the Croats, who in their area are allied with the BiH (unlike in central Bosnia, where the two are at war). But their relations with the Serbs are cooler, in spite of weekly meetings.

The last 18 of the 302s came up the mountain route to Vitez on Monday, and on Tuesday we followed them as they headed for Tuzla to join 36 already in the Nordic battalion area. The Danish tanks will follow 'as soon as possible'. The Nordic battalion comprises 860 troops at present, rising to 1,000 when the last soldiers arrive. It consists of Swedish mechanised companies with the 302s at Vares, Tuzla and Srebrenik. The Danish tank company will also be based at Tuzla.

The British major in charge of the road up from Split, Alan Macklin of the Royal Engineers, said he was happy for the tanks to use his route, designed for weights of up to 30 tons once the ground was frozen. Major Lavman said: 'The worst part is the bit between Vares and Tuzla - but that's in our area.'

Military operations are not an exact science and the UN's Bosnia-Herzegovina command has earmarked a little money to repair routes Triangle, Diamond, Pacman and Skoda in case the tanks crush a culvert or go off the side.

(Map omitted)