First GIs in Tuzla find `no surprises'

A team of US officers dispatched to implement the Dayton peace plan arrived in Tuzla, yesterday, and expressed "concerns" rather than "fears" over their mission.

Brigadier-General Stanley Cherrie, deputy commander of the US 1st Armoured Division, was startled by the intense media presence, but told a press conference he had found "no great surprises" other than the bad state of theroads.

He had less to reveal about the supposed arrival of hundreds of Americans, who are due this week to prepare Tuzla for the influx of 20,000 members of the trans-Atlantic component of Task Force Eagle.

As befitted the leader of a senior reconnaissance mission, he spoke of bad roads and an under-sized air base, of traffic accidents and the danger of mines. These were his "concerns". The issue of Serbs and warring factions was not on the list, the general said, as his men were to enforce a peace. Eventually, he thought, American troops would be positioned on the Serb- held side of the line, although they would stick to government territory at first.

A phalanx of television cameras staked out the main gate of Tuzla's vast military air base to catch the moment of General Cherrie's arrival.

As the base was fog-bound, the 10 officers in the divisional reconnaissance team arrived in UN armoured personnel carriers, but the tell-tale camouflaged helmets among the peace-keepers' blue ones alerted the waiting pack. "First impressions?" one reporter asked.

"It's cold", replied the American. "Not miserable, just cold." He will change his mind, as yesterday was quite warm by Tuzla's standards.

The city is sinking, victim of the salt mining it is named for - "tuz" is Turkish for "salt" - and many old buildings have collapsed: the effect is like that of a catastrophic earth-quake, according to the city council's brochure.

"Tuzla - where reason prevails" does, however, rejoice in its multi-ethnic and tolerant history. This was the only region in Bosnia which did not vote on ethnic lines in the 1990 elections. As a result, the Social Democratic Party is in control, not the Muslim SDA that runs the rest of government- held Bosnia, in spite of the Muslim majority in the city. Tuzla wants to extend its independence post-war and is seeking funds to convert the base, which the UN will hand over to Nato next week, into a commercial airport.

The first headache for US planners has been to find suitable bases for the 4,000 to 5,000 troops that will be attached to the Tuzla head-quarters, then to consider how to move tanks in and out. Yesterday the American officers, hotly pursued by photographers, were busy with tape-measures, checking the dimensions of a bridge on the road towards a confrontation line, and examining a field that might serve as a helicopter landing site.

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