West haggles over troop numbers

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THE ISSUE of the international community's willingness to provide thousands more troops to implement a new peace plan for Bosnia has become the classic chicken-and-egg affair.

On the one hand, the UN mediators, Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg, insist that without firm commitments to guarantee the deal, the Bosnian Muslims will never sign up. On the other, the West is unwilling to promise any forces until a 'durable' agreement is reached.

The difficulties facing the draft accord were further underlined yesterday when it was announced that Lord Owen and Mr Stoltenberg were travelling to The Hague today to hear Dutch concerns about the plan. There were also reports that Germany had summoned the mediators to hear its doubts over the practicality of dividing Bosnia into three ethnic states.

According to diplomats and military experts, what underlies the entire situation are differences over what constitutes a 'just' settlement combined with European and US reluctance to get involved in open-ended commitments.

Mr Stoltenberg, following the counsel of his own military advisers, is recommending to the United Nations Secruity Council that it will take about 40,000 troops, in addition to the 24,000 UN forces already in the country, to make the latest peace plan workable. He has already warned that the Bosnians are relying on international determination to guarantee the settlement and any hesitation would bury the chances for peace.

However, Balkan experts say that despite the mediator's best arguments there is no reason to think that even if the West were to promise to send more troops today the Bosnian government would trust it. After vowing to defend the so-called 'safe areas' for Muslims, Western countries failed to to honour their commitments to provide sufficient ground forces for the task. Original estimates were that 32,000 troops were needed to protect the enclaves. In the end the UN had problems scraping together 7,500.

'What we have is a refusal of anyone to raise their head above the parapet before anyone else. No one wants to get involved in an open-ended commitment before seeing the fine print,' said one Western government official.

Experts agree that an important obstacle to implementing any peace agreement will be how many troops and from which nations are to be deployed to guarantee the deal. Some UN officials say that Nato has already agreed to implement the draft plan, but well-placed, well-informed Nato sources deny it. The UN, they say, has not asked them even informally to enforce the latest proposal.

Earlier this month, a Nato meeting agreed that the alliance was 'willing to participate' in the implementation of a settlement 'under the authority of the UN Security Council'. But one source said yesterday: 'This does not mean Nato will take over the implementation of any peace plan or even that Nato will supply ground troops. None of that has been decided yet.'

Diplomats and Nato sources say that a lot depends on Washington and to what extent the Americans are willing to participate in an expanded peace-keeping operation. 'If the Americans decided to contribute ground troops that would certainly encourage a strong Nato role,' the source said.

US support for the latest peace plan, however, is far from overwhelming. Any decision to send troops to Bosnia would have to be supported by Congress. US officials say the Clinton administration would first have to prove that any deal was 'fair' to the Muslims. One US official commented: 'Given that so many congressmen oppose awarding occupied land to the Serbs, it would be a very hard sell.'

Nevertheless, Nato sources said that US military planners at Nato headquarters in Brussels have already started informally to revise earlier contingency plans for a Nato peace- keeping role in Bosnia.

Plans were well-advanced for the deployment of 75,000 Nato peace- keepers to disarm the combatants and arrange the transfer of the respective ethnic groups to their assigned 'cantons' under the now failed Vance- Owen plan. Mr Clinton had pledged that at least 25,000 US soldiers would participate in the peace-keeping operation. 'But that,' one source said 'was a long time ago.'

(Photograph omitted)