Germans to join new Bosnia peace force

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Britain will play a pivotal role in the new multinational force which will replace I-For, the peace- implementation force in Bosnia, after 20 December, the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, said in Sarajevo yesterday.

Volker Ruhe, his German counterpart, said Germany would do the same, reaffirming Bonn's commitment last week to put troops into Bosnia - their first front-line role abroad in half a century - and his belief that an international force should stay in Bosnia for another year.

The defence ministers arrived as international monitors continued to supervise the counting of votes cast in Saturday's elections. Bosnia's Muslim President, Alija Izetbegovic, has been confirmed as the first chairman of the three-member Bosnian presidency.

The Serb nationalist candidate, Momcilo Krajisnik, came second and the Croat, Kresimir Zubak, third. The results of the other ballots, for the all-Bosnia assembly, the presidency and assembly of the Serb half of Bosnia, the assembly of the Muslim-Croat Federation, and the federation's 10 cantons, will be announced later in the week.

The new multinational force is expected to be called Fo-For - Follow- on-Force, according to Nato sources. Britain will provide 240 personnel in the new Fo-For headquarters in Sarajevo, including the new deputy commander, a lieutenant-general who will be responsible for land operations. The increased German role in the Nato-based force demanded by Mr Ruhe is more controversial, while senior American sources also indicated that the US would provide a significant component - contradicting Washington's refusal to discuss the matter.

"My guess is it will be done at sixteen," a senior US official said last week - a reference to the full 16 Nato members.

"It is clear there will be a new mandate and Germany will show solidarity and play a meaningful part," Mr Ruhe said in Sarajevo at the start of a joint visit to British and German troops in Bosnia and Croatia. Germany has 4,000 troops in Croatia, but few in Bosnia. "I think it should be limited to one year, but this must be discussed at the political level. This time we want to be stationed in Bosnia itself," Mr Ruhe said.

Last week he said an international military force should stay in Bosnia until at least October next year to ensure the right conditions for reconstruction, freedom of movement, and rebuilding confidence and fostering democratic attitudes. After the postponement of municipal elections, a big international military presence is likely to be required until these are held in November or next spring.

Mr Portillo said the "deployment of the new headquarters carried no significance for decisions on post-I-For arrangements", which he considered would be premature at this stage.

But the continued ban on any discussion of arrangements after 20 December appears to be the result of an increasingly absurd deference to US sensitivities before the 5 November presidential elections. It is well known that the main Nato powers have advanced plans for a follow-on force.

There are 58,000 I-For troops in Bosnia, divided into three roughly equal divisions - one US, one British and one French. The plan for a follow-on force envisages three brigades of about 7,000 each, but capitalises on the flexibility of military organisations. Instead of three weak divisions, as now, there could be three strong brigades in the same sectors, especially now the tasks of separating the former warring factions and corralling their weapons have been completed.

The British 20 Armoured Brigade could take on most of the responsibilities of the 1st British Division, currently based at Banja Luka in Serb-controlled western Bosnia, for example.