US woos Russia for peace force

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The Independent Online

Williamsburg, Virginia

American and Nato officials want Russia to have a "substantial" role in a Bosnian peace-keeping operation, under an agreement to be endorsed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin at their mini-summit in New York later this month. They hope the accord will be a first step towards removing Moscow's suspicions about the alliance's plans.

The first outlines of the possible arrangements began to emerge at the meeting of Nato foreign ministers here, unexpectedly transformed by Thursday's ceasefire agreement into an urgent planning session for a Peace Implementation Force (PIF) deployment in the Balkans, which could start as soon as late November.

The options - to be discussed by William Perry, the US Defense Secretary, when he meets his Russian opposite number, Pavel Grachev, in Geneva this weekend - include the creation of a "16-plus-one" body, consisting of the 16 Nato countries plus Russia, at Nato headquarters in Brussels. The two defence chiefs will also discuss the secondment of senior Russian officers to the alliance's military command in Mons, Belgium. Moscow should ideally be part of a "liaison structure at each level of the operation," a Nato official said.

The allies remain adamantthat the PIF must have a single military chain of command under Nato, despite Russian misgivings. But Russia might well be given vital non-military tasks, including engineering and resettlement programmes.

Especially worrying to Nato is the risk of a "Berlin-style partition" in Bosnia, where different ethnic parts of the country are each policed by forces from a sympathetic patron - for example, Russian troops in Bosnian Serb areas and US and other alliance contingents around Sarajevo and the other Muslim-controlled regions.

Admiral Leighton Smith, the American commander of Nato forces in southern Europe, would take overall charge of the operation. The theatre commander on the ground in Bosnia itself is likely to be General Mike Walker, the British commander of the alliance's reaction force.

With time of the essence, the deployment will use the existing stand- by plan for Nato to intervene to extricate the United Nations peace- keepers, had that been necessary. But that operation, drawn up to run for six to 12 weeks only, must now be restructured to last a year - the expected outside limit of the new Nato mission.

The defence ministers here accept that a peace agreement will have no chance unless it is absolutely clear-cut, with maps laying out a division of territory. For this reason, military planners want "front-loading", the dispatch of a powerful force early on to deter last-minute grabs for extra land by one side or other, rather than a smaller force that would have to be increased if trouble arose.

Once this force is in place, the alliance hopes it can persuade the better-armed belligerents to reduce their own forces. Otherwise, Washington would be happy to see the less well-equipped Muslim army "professionalised and retrained".

Mr Perry's readiness - if all else fails - to beef up Bosnia's forces, is partly designed to sell the peace deal to a wary US Congress that only six weeks ago was poised to force an end to the UN arms embargo.

But Nato hopes its recent bombing campaign has convinced the Serbs that it means business.