SFOR Commander Seeks to Calm Nerves

The commander of SFOR in Bosnia says troop cuts will not undermine the

SFOR Commander Seeks to Calm Nerves

The commander of SFOR in Bosnia says troop cuts will not undermine the

Friday, 1 June, 2001

By Sead Numanovic in Sarajevo (BCR No. 252, 1-Jun-01)


NATO commanders have sought to calm fears that planned reductions in the number of alliance troops in Bosnia will limit the effectiveness of the peacekeeping force.


In an interview with IWPR, Lieutenant-General Michael Dodson, commander of the NATO-led Stabilisation Force, SFOR, said an expected 15 per cent cut in the size of the mission in the coming months would not affect its ability to fulfil its mandate.


"We began with 60,000 (soldiers) and cuts since then have left us with


about 20,000," the general explained. "I expect the reduction to come to 15 per cent at most."


His statement corroborated recent articles in the American media which


reported that NATO ambassadors had agreed to reduce the peacekeeping


force in Bosnia from 21,000 troops to 18,000.


According to these reports, the 3,600-strong American peacekeeping contingent in Bosnia would be cut by a further 500 soldiers. SFOR's US contribution started out in 1995 with 20,000 troops.


Last week, the new US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he considered NATO's job in the Balkans was finished and would insist on an early exit by most of the American troops.


General Dodson agreed that the alliance's military mission in


Bosnia, as envisaged by the Dayton peace accord, had been largely completed, but asserted that it still had to maintain general security and obtain the return of refugees.


General Dodson's statement went some way to allay fears that an early


American pullout would damage SFOR's capability.


Dodson also challenged recent criticism of SFOR's performance. One case that had aroused particular scorn was their raid last month on the Hercegovacka Banka in Mostar where Bosnian Croat extremists held illegal funds. The peacekeepers were met by a well-organised mob which


forced them to retreat, after handing back confiscated documents.


The NATO commander admitted his people badly misjudged the raid. "We did not expect such opposition," he said. "We thought there would only be random passers-by or bank customers at the scene." A second raid was more successful and managed to block off the Croat funds.


Other criticism was levelled at SFOR over its alleged inactivity during ethnic violence in Banja Luka and Trebinje, where Western diplomats and Muslim citizens were attacked and beaten by a Bosnian Serb mob during the laying of foundation stones for local mosques.


Murat Badic, a 61-year-old Muslim, was seriously injured in Banja Luka and later died in a Sarajevo hospital.


Dodson insisted that public security in Trebinje and Banja Luka


was the responsibility of local police, not SFOR soldiers. "SFOR cannot


be omnipresent, and unless we are informed, invited or made aware of a


problem, we cannot act," he said. "If we know of an event and if we


are asked to intervene then we can do something about it."


The general said that while the violence was raging in Banja Luka,


he received a phone call from Republika Srpska premier Mladen Ivanic who asked that SFOR troops should not get involved.


"He told me he wanted local police to handle the problem," Dodson said. "Had SFOR intervened, everyone, including local police, would have been discredited.


"British troops in SFOR were ready to act but the commander on the ground judged that to move in uninvited would have caused more injuries among the crowd. I think his judgment was correct."


Dodson pledged that next time mosque foundation stones are laid, SFOR would make clear to the organisers what was expected from


them. He said he would personally demand that the mayor of Banja Luka


and the highest Orthodox religious dignitaries be present at the


ceremony.


The general also strongly rejected claims that SFOR was lax in


hunting down war crimes suspects. Over the past year, peacekeepers have arrested only two persons indicted by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.


Some local and international officials, including The Hague's chief


prosecutor, have complained that SFOR appears to have given up on


chasing war criminals.


"We have not given up but the longer they are at large, the more


difficult it is to catch them," Dodson said. "It is possible that some of them are not in this country. My general impression is that most of those indicted, especially the more infamous ones, are in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.


"I am not saying they do not come to Republika Srpska, but the


problem is how to track them down and muster adequate forces at the


right moment." He stressed again that local authorities and police are


ultimately responsible for arresting war crimes suspects.


"I am putting a lot of pressure on the president of Republika Srpska,


Mr Sarovic, to take action, but I am rather sceptical of his


intentions," Dobson said.


Sead Numanovic is a deputy editor of Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz


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