West will keep force in Bosnia next year

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A significant peace-keeping force is expected to remain in Bosnia after the withdrawal of the peace-implementation force (I- For), according to senior defence sources.

The size and composition of the "post-I-For" force is as uncertain as its function, but it is expected to include US, British and French troops. That may mean a continued Nato presence. Expectations of a post-I-For force have been played down until now. But it appears that without a continued Western presence everything achieved so far will collapse, and that Britain and the US will stay in Bosnia in some form.

Until now, the US had insisted its troops would leave Bosnia after the year-long I-For mission. Britain was committed to sticking with the Americans under the "one-out, all-out" policy. The US recently said it would delay withdrawal and now appears to have accepted the need for a residual force.

Although I-For's mission has gone well, the sources said they were worried there was no sign of reconciliation between the former warring parties. After almost four years of war, that is not surprising, but they said it made a continued military presence advisable.

When I-For arrived in Bosnia in December, it planned to stay for no more than a year. That would have meant the 60,000-strong force would start withdrawing in September, a bad time, as it would coincide with Bosnia's elections. It is now accepted the withdrawal will not begin until December.

Sources yesterday would not speculate on the size of the follow-on force, although troops in Bosnia believe a force of about 20,000 - one-third of the present force - could hold the "Zone of Separation" between Serbs and the Muslim-Croat federation.

The presence of foreign troops in Bosnia could become an election issue. Hard-liners, particularly in the Bosnian Serb zone, could use the foreign presence as a vote-winner.

The next milestone in Bosnia is the review conference in Florence on 13-14 June, which will report that I-For's mission has been remarkably successful. In July the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has to certify that conditions are satisfactory for the elections. These have to take place by 14 September and will be supervised by the OSCE with security provided by I-For.

Maintenance of the peace in Bosnia is seen as dependent on reconstruction. Now that the demanding tasks of securing the 4km-wide "Zone of Separation" is complete, I-For troops are devoting much of their effort to reconstruction.

The sources ruled out any early action to arrest the indicted war criminals, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, saying that the consequences if it went wrong, or even it it went right, might be to upset the fragile peace. However, diplomatic sources yesterday said there were "definite signs" that Dr Karadzic might give up the leadership in the next day or so.

The Nato Secretary General, Javier Solana, said the redeployment of I-For troops would make it more difficult for suspected war criminals to move around.

Under the Dayton peace accord, I-For troops are to apprehend any suspected war criminals they come across, but are not required to seek them out. The defence sources indicated that policy would not change.