Turks return in the cause of peace

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The Independent Online
SPLIT - Hampered by the weight of history, Turkish troops will enter Bosnia-Herzegovina this week for the first such deployment since 1878, when the Congress of Berlin ended 500 years of Ottoman rule in Bosnia, writes Emma Daly. A pressing need for fresh forces in the former Yugoslavia prompted the United Nations to break the rule banning old regional rivals from keeping the peace.

The Turkish battalion thus bears the UN flag rather than the standard of colonial rule, but the announcement of its arrival provoked a dramatic reaction. Belgrade, accusing Ankara of 'bias and one- sidedness', warned that the Turkish presence 'could have a direct bearing on the escalation of the conflict'. The Bosnian Serbs announced that they would shoot Turks on sight.

Such an attitude is met by the Turks more with sorrow than with anger. 'First of all, we hope that will never happen,' said Colonel Mehmet Ali Erdogan, the Turkish commander. 'We have no hostile intentions against anyone - Serbs, Muslims or Croats - and we will try to be impartial always.' But, he added, should any Serb fire on his men, 'we will answer . . . according to the rules of engagement' - which allow UN peace-keepers to return fire in self-defence. The Bosnian Serbs are also on shaky ground since their historical allies, the Russians, arrived in Sarajevo several months ago, many of them flashing the three-fingered Serb salute.

Still, in deference to Serbian sensibilities, the Turks are to be deployed (at least for now) in Zenica and Kakanj in central Bosnia, as far away as possible from the Serbian front lines. 'We cannot ignore the history of any of our contingents,' said Brigadier Andrew Ridgway, the British commander of Sector South-West, under whose command the Turks will fall. 'We just have to be very sensitive. The Turkish troops are extremely professional and they're very keen to do a good job. I'm sure they will.'

The Ottoman armies took control in Bosnia and Serbia after the battle of Kosovo Polje on 28 June 1389 - a date of almost mystical reverence in the Serbian calendar, celebrated as St Vitus' Day. But while the European powers delivered Bosnia from one imperial ruler to another (Austria-Hungary) in 1878, the Ottomans were not expelled from southern Serbia until the First Balkan War of 1912 - the occupation existed within living memory. The Ottoman defeat was swiftly followed by the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 - again on St Vitus' Day.

It was unfortunate, therefore, that the Turks were scheduled to deploy in Bosnia 605 years to the day after their victory in Kosovo. An advance party of Turkish troops was even invited to a party to celebrate the Serbian defeat of 1389 thrown by members of the government army in Zenica, the most Islamic town in modern Bosnia. Diplomatically, they sent their regrets. The main Turkish departure has been delayed not due to some diplomatic sleight-of-hand but to the entrepreneurial skills of Bosnian landlords, who, the UN said, raised the rent on the prospective Turkish barracks (a disused factory in Zenica). But all such kinks have now been ironed out, and the Turks should be in position by next week.

Their tasks will include patrolling Zenica, Kakanj and the surrounding countryside and, Brigadier Ridgway hopes, building confidence among the Croats and Muslims of the region.

(Photograph omitted)