UK troops march out to enforce Bosnia deal peace

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The Independent Online

Gornji Vakuf

As the UN flag comes down in Sarajevo at noon today, Operation Resolute Rat - the British contribution to the Bosnia peace mission - will kick off in north-western Bosnia.

Hundreds of British troops backed by artillery and helicopters have moved out of UN bases in central Bosnia towards the frontlines to prepare to enforce the Dayton plan. For the past few days the 3,000 British UN peace- keepers have been busy with the cosmetic changes of the transfer of authority from the UN to I-For, Nato's implementation force.

The British are to cross into Serb-held territory today, to start patrolling the frontline areas from which the warring factions must withdraw within 30 days.

In Gornji Vakuf, headquarters for the British Nato sector, soldiers have been spending the past few days painting black and green camouflage stripes on the white cars, trucks and armoured vehicles of the UN Protection Force (Unprofor). But the camp is emptying fast: the last column of light guns was due to leave last night for positions near the front line. The soldiers have unstitched their blue UN badges and swapped the peace-keeper's beret for a multitude of regimental colours.

The colours are important, for the real change between the I-For and its much-criticised predecessor, Unprofor, will be the use of force. The Nato troops are deploying as combat forces with the capability and the will to use overwhelming military might if necessary to enforce the Bosnia peace plan.

International politics dictates the irony that the UN, whose specialty is patrolling once a peace has been agreed, was mired in a vicious war, while the Western alliance is to take over only now that the fighting has stopped.

I-For's success will in the first instance be measured by its ability to overcome the UN's highest hurdle: the checkpoint. Peace-keepers and their vital aid convoys were often turned back by a man with a barrier, most often a rebel Serb, though the Bosnian Croat militia and the government army also hampered freedom of movement.

All that is set to change today. Brigadier Richard Dannatt, commander of the Fourth Armoured Brigade, descendants of the Desert Rats, which will deploy this week towards the Serb-held towns of Banja Luka and Prijedor, has told all three warring factions that his troops will not carry the papers demanded by checkpoints. The force will move where and when it wants, though the brigadier does not plan to send his troops in with guns blazing: they will give checkpoints a chance to call the boss to avert misunderstandings and unnecessary violence.

But I-For may have to act fiercely against paramilitaries: Serb soldiers loyal to the Belgrade war profiteer known as Arkan, for example, or the "mujahedin" who have crossed swords with the British in the past. The Bosnian army has a few mujahedin units among the more tolerant majority.

Yesterday we were held by Bosnian mujahedin unhappy at being photographed at a parade in Zavidovici, in the US sector. They threatened one photographer and took his film, while his colleagues had their cameras taken, despite the discomfort of the Bosnian police.

The Dayton plan requires all foreign forces, including mujahedin, to leave Bosnia within 30 days; it is not yet clear how I-For intends to deal with those who remain. Conflict may come in the future, but for the British for now, the priority is to create a secure and stable environment in which the peace plan can take hold.

Meanwhile, in Belgrade yesterday a poll put General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb army commander and suspected war criminal, second in popularity only to President Slobodan Milosevic. The general has been indicted twice for genocide by the UN tribunal dealing with war crimes in former Yugoslavia. The poll was done by the Belgrade-based Institute of Social Sciences.