The colonel hands over his command: British army chief in Bosnia steps down

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The Independent Online
'I DON'T kill people unless the circumstances are right and it's part of my job. But my job is not to kill people, not to kill people.' Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Stewart of the Cheshire Regiment, who has become a familiar figure on British TV screens in the last six months, is about to hand over command at Vitez to Lt Col Alastair Duncan of the Prince of Wales' Regiment, who arrived yesterday.

Speaking in his office in a former school, now heavily fortified with sandbags, the colonel said he was disappointed with the government's plans to shrink troop numbers and was uncertain whether he would remain in the army. He might like to work for the UN. In which case he was very likely to return to Bosnia.

Would he miss being here?

'Of course I will, because this is the best job I've done in my life. Because it's the most moral job I've done in my life. But I'm only one man. We're not a special battalion and I'm not a special commanding officer. I hope I come out as a normal man.'

Col Stewart dismissed press reports that his men were frustrated by the situation in Bosnia and that his nightly gung-ho television appearances had made him unpopular in Whitehall. 'I'm not being criticised in Whitehall. The Prime Minister personally told me that.'

On the other hand, the fact that he chatted with Mr Major suggests that this was a pretty unusual lieutenant- colonel's command. Like every army officer, he has been trained to appear on television, but the colonel has become a master of the soundbite. Some joke that other officers who take up 'his' air time face a dressing down.

He is well liked by the local Croat, Muslim and Serb forces. His tough but fair manner has won respect here and at home. He said that the way to earn trust was to say what you were going to do and then do it, every time. His obvious anger at the Ahinici atrocities recently, when he told the Croat militia in no uncertain terms what he thought of them, drew letters of support from viewers in Britain.

'I'm not a maverick', he said. 'I've strict guidelines, but within those guidelines I can operate fairly flexibly. When I have made some of those decisions - albeit somewhat shaky - I have been backed up.'

On his troops' morale, he says: 'It's a wonderful job to do. A soldier's only got to lift one child out of an appalling condition, to save one life, to make his six months. And they've all done it.'

What would happen in Bosnia now?

'Personally, I'd like to see this plan through. I'm absolutely delighted a peace plan has been agreed - or appears to have been agreed. But my experience suggests that I should wait before I get ecstatic. If you're an optimist - and you've got to have an optimistic view as a peace-keeper - the violence will stop. It's got to stop. The Vance-Owen plan is super insofar as it's been signed. There's a lot of work to implement it and a lot of that work has to be on the ground.'

Col Stewart is married and has a boy and a girl, aged 15 and 13, at boarding school. His wife, Lizzie, has remained in Germany, organising support for soldiers' wives. He has not been able to contact his family much. 'She's probably had a pretty hard tour,' he said.

He leaves the former Yugoslavia on 15 May and will spend a week at his old HQ in Fallingbostel before going on holiday. 'I'll be trying to sort my life out again.'

Some have suggested he might stand for Parliament. 'Political office? Me? I'm an army officer. I can't see that happening. Do you think that because I'm in the news? As one of my generation I have been put into an extraordinary position. But I'm a bog-standard soldier.'

Would he write a book?

'Haven't thought about it. I've kept a diary, certainly. I've just written about what I did every day.'

So would he stay in the army?

'Maybe not. I'm thinking about it along with every other officer of my generation because I'm disappointed with Options for Change (The government's defence review). It's not that it's been done unfairly. It's because many of my chums have been thrown out. I'm just hurt.

'I like the idea of the UN. The UN is the court of last resort isn't it?' Would he be back? 'If I join the UN, I think it's highly likely, don't you? But they say 'hang on to your job'. It's difficult to get a job, isn't it?'

Leading article, page 25

(Photograph omitted)

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