Old foes join hands to bring 'last hope' to Bosnia

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The Independent Online
Russia's special representative to Nato, Colonel-General Leonty Shevtsov, had a blunt message for his troops deploying in northern Bosnia yesterday. The 60,000-strong peace implementation force I-For, to which Russia is contributing a brigade of about 1,600 troops, is, he said, "the last hope for the people here". But there is another message in the Russian presence: it is a chance for the Russian army to redeem itself after the debacle in Chechnya.

The relationship between the Russians and Nato was always sensitive, and the command relationships have still not been fully resolved. General Shevtsov said yesterday that Russian officials, including General Pavel Grachev, the Defence Minister, would be coming to Bosnia to work out the final details of their relationship with the Americans.

The Russians are taking over a sector of northern Bosnia under control of the US-led division based in Tuzla, although General Shevtsov said important issues will still be referred to Moscow. The Russian bases lie north of the desolate "zone of separation" - a four-kilometre-wide strip separating the former warring factions, now totally cleared of weaponry and troops. Driving north from Tuzla, you encounter a US checkpoint at one side of the zone and the first Russian checkpoint on the other side. In the next two to three days, the Russians will take over from the Americans in the whole area.

At the Russian base at Priboj, north of the zone of separation, we were met by Major Alexander Dementyev, 35, an officer in the airborne forces and commander of one of the two main Russian battalions - each 400- strong.

From Kostroma, north-east of Moscow, he had been in the army since he was 18, and served two years in Afghanistan. He had arrived a week before, on board a train through Hungary and into Bijeljina.

Major Dementyev was about to show us around, when another officer rushed up. "Sir. It's Shevtsov."

General Shevtsov, a stocky man wearing a huge peaked cap with a Russian double-headed eagle above its Soviet-vintage star, was accompanied by Major General Staskov, the deputy commander of the elite airborne troops now responsible for peace-keeping. The Bosnia contingent all wear a badge saying "Peace-keeping [Mirotvorcheskiye] Troops of the Russian Airborne Forces - Bosnia", with a Nato star cunningly coloured in pink and blue.

General Shevtsov addressed the troops. "You are the last hope for the people here. The UN came and wasted everyone's money. Now it is up to you," he said.

Behind General Shevtsov was Colonel Alexander Lentsov, commander of the Russian brigade. A huge man, he grabbed one of the soldiers and bawled him out for looking scruffy. But Col Lentsov, an Afghanistan veteran like Major Dementyev, was pragmatic - and shrewd. Asked if the Russians expected peace-keeping to be their army's main job over the next few years, he said: "It depends: if this goes well, everyone will say yes; if not, if there's blood all over the place, then no."

We gave Major Dementyev a lift in our Lada four-wheel drive to an American position further west where a 120-strong company of Airborne Rangers were well dug in.

Captain John Lightner, the company commander, appeared and I found myself acting as interpreter. "I will show the Russian battalion commander round our positions," said Capt Lightner, and asked Major Dementyev when he expected to take over.

"When do you expect to take over?""Maybe three days," said the major, "but my troops are ready now." Capt Lightner explained: "We're building a new fire position here to put fire on that slope there. We have early warning devices we use to cover approaches that are difficult to see."

"They are what we call trip-flares," the Russian replied.

Like the Russians at their checkpoint on the separation zone, the Americans had made themselves as comfortable as possible they could.

The Russians had tents three layers of fabric thick, and field bakeries which also provided heat. The Americans had rigged up weights in mineral water bottles to ensure the doors were pulled shut.

"We have two mortars here, firing in opposite directions," said Capt Lightner. "There are mines here. I walked over there on 20 January. The local Serb battalion commander, Captain Mejor, told me there were no mines there but we haven't checked it."

One of the features of the roads around Tuzla are the American "Hummers" - the wide high-mobility vehicles. Major Dementyev had not yet seen one.

"That's a Hummer, yes?"

"Yes."

"Like Arnold Schwarzenegger uses, yes?"

The super-power contingents burst into laughter.

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