All Change In Bosnia
Reuter's Radio News & London News Radio 00-05-1995
The Anglo-French Task Force Initiative.
The following assessments were those I made and used as the basis of some of the 22 reports and live two-ways filed to Reuter's Radio News and London News Radio in the summer of 1995. It seemed to me and to a BBC Radio colleague, Rachel Corp, that subtle clues indicated that a radical new approach by some Western nations to the intractable fighting in Bosnia was on its way.
For two weeks in June 1995 we were alone in shifting our attention from Vitez, Sarajevo, Mostar and Central Bosnia to concentrate on what we believed was the secret impending landing of a new military force on the Dalmatian coast. Eventually our suspicions were proved correct and it was this new quasi-NATO force, effectively by-passing the failed three-year UN strategy, which brought an end to fighting in Bosnia by the end of 1995.
By Christopher Long
By the summer of 1995 the three-year failure of the UN and its UNPROFOR forces in Bosnia-Hercegovina, to relieve besieged towns and cities or to open roads to aid convoys (let alone to achieve peace) led to immense frustration among some Western nations. The UN's bureaucratic and cumbersome chain of command and its ineffective strategies were no longer tolerable. Instead, a formidable quasi NATO-based force was being secretly assembled in an initiative led by Britain and France to impose a 'decisive peace' in the region. This new strategy was never overtly declared to be a replacement of the former UN forces. Nevertheless the new Anglo-French forces were landed on the Dalmatian coast and operated under their own, non-UN, chain of command. Supported by several other nations, this force rapidly achieved most of its objectives and, combined with US air attacks on strategic Serb targets, led to a rapid cessation of local fighting. This was followed by the arrival of US ground forces. This decisive new initiative brought the impending Summer Offensive to a halt as Serbs, Muslims and Croats recognised that the West at last meant business. Within months the Dayton peace treaty had been signed.
Tuesday, 13 June, 1995 Mostar.
Assessment of the current situation
- A British battle group (but minus an originally planned Spanish mortar contribution) is on standby at a 'secret location' (known to us) roughly 20 miles from Sarajevo. The intentions of this force and the likelihood that it would be used 'to punch a corridor through to Sarajevo' (my question to General Sir John Wilsey at Vitez on 03-06-95 unanswered!) would be easier to judge if one knew how many engineers were seconded to it (seven bridges in the way) and how many 'special forces' would be available for preparatory work (e.g. neutralising local opposition groups).
- Meanwhile, a large British battle group known as Taskforce Alpha is claimed very publicly by BritBat to be on warm-up and live-firing exercises at Tomislavgrad, comprising the Devon & Dorset Regiment (in a variety of Scimitars, Warriors and other tracked vehicles with 30 mm cannons) and two batteries of the 19th Field Artillery (RA) plus engineers, signallers and other specialist elements. We have visited them many times at Vitez but to what extent is their presence and the publicity sought for them a diversionary ploy?. Taskforce Alpha, with the addition of 24 Air Mobile Brigade (currently on standby at RAF Lyneham) would, claims BritBat, form part of the publicly discussed Rapid Reaction Force provided by Britain, France and other countries and currently awaiting orders to deploy.
- BiH (predominantly Muslim) forces are currently massing in and around the Ilijas finger area (held by the BSA Bonian Serb Army) just south of Visoko (BiH-held) and appear to have mobilised probably their largest force in the last two years, assembled to perform a pincer movement from west to east based on the Tarcin area and from north to south from the Visoko area. We have travelled to this front line and have witnessed the preparations for what we are calling a Summer Offensive. These combined forces have the apparent aim of taking the vital controlling position at Ilijas which would secure Central Bosnia while also taking them to a position only seven miles from the BSA (Serb) held northern hills of Sarajevo. Action is apparently anticipated "within a few days", according to UN Military Observers (British intelligence officer Visoko) and BritBat sources (Vitez).
- Meanwhile, British military sources (Metkovic) are unofficially claiming that BiH troops are massing within the northern suburbs of Sarajevo, giving rise to speculation that BiH troops inside and outside the city might attempt a concerted break-out through the Serb strangle-hold positions around northern Sarajevo.
- Simultaneously, BSA (Serb) forces ringing the hills north of Sarajevo are believed by British military sources (Vitez and Visoko) to have re-deployed, perhaps accounting for the relative lull in the bombardment of Sarajevo in the past few days. A British military liaison officer says that, tactically, the Serbs would be most vulnerable if the BiH launched a powerful thrust east from the Tarcin area using their troops to the north as an anvil. A concerted pincer movement from south-west and north-east might cut off the finger with the BSA within it, but would not destroy them.
- UN monitors (CanBat Visoko) and UN military observers (British Visoko) have been expelled from and denied access to, respectively, the Visoko-Ilijas area while civilians from at least one town, Slivno, have been evacuated 'for their own safety' in the past three days [as we witnessed when we found ourselves driving through the front line exclusion zone and wondered why we were so alone! The fact that no-one fired at us suggested that a formal battle plan was in operation].
- Meanwhile Sarajevo has been running very short of food and supplies recently owing both to the refusal of the BSA (Serbs) to allow convoys through and to the closure of the airport. UN personnel are said to be down to 10 days' supplies, putting pressure on the BiH government to act in its own interests and the UN to achieve a negotiated convoy route running from the north down the old Kiseljak/Ilidza road to Sarajevo. However, this road (about 20 miles long) runs parallel to the road around which the BiH forces are now mustering, north of the city. Any fighting launched by the BiH would almost certainly jeopardise any UN or NATO attempt to get their own route open. To make matters worse, as at today, UNHCR has been told that the BSA would only allow them to use the Kiseljak-Ilidza route if they, the BSA, provide a police escort in place of the normal UN armoured vehicles and additionally UNHCR agrees to hand over a cut of 50% of the convoy's aid. This percentage of extortion is 100% higher than the usual BSA 'tariff' of 23-25% of every convoy. UNHCR is expected to turn this offer down [which, bearing in mind the desperate food shortage in Sarajevo, suggests that have been told that a better solution is in the planning].
- As a back-drop to all these military and diplomatic developments, some 14 UN hostages are still being held by the BSA in Serb-held Bosnia and it seems unlikely that the UN, NATO or individual governments would launch assaults until these are freed. Most observers on the ground can only see total confusion from the conflicting messages emanating from the UN, NATO commanders and Western capitals (notably Britain, France and Washington). The most generous interpretation that can be put on the Western performance is that their forces are more powerful and more prepared for imminent decisive action, if necessary, than they have been willing to admit. It may be that there is indeed a 'cunning plan' to catch the BSA unawares, or it may be that the apparent disarray is just as real as it appears.
- Within a few days negotiations resulted in the release of these hostages and we met and interviewed the British members of the group. It became clear that their release was a vital pre-requisite to the start of the Anglo-French-led Task Force operations.
Saturday, 17 June, 1995 Ploce.
Assessment of the current situation
- Ploce is one of Croatia's four deep water commercial ports. As gateways or exit points from Central Bosnia, Rijeka is too far north, Zadar too close to the Krajina Serb front line, Split already designated as an embarkation and evacuation port to serve Divulje Barracks, etc.
- Long ago, in Spring 1992, I was reporting Ploce as the perfect sanctions-busting and arms smuggling port, used on a huge scale by Croatia, the HVO and BiH (from whose consignments the Croats/HVO would extract up to 80% during the HVO-BiH conflicts).
- Ploce has a direct rail link with Sarajevo via Mostar and Jablanica although it has been severely damaged and blocked both at Mostar and beyond since 1992 and has not been used since. According to Veljo, however, it may be operational as far as Mostar. It's unlikely to be of much use to UN/NATO military.
- Ploce is directly connected to Metkovic via the deep water canal running up the former Neretva delta.
- Veljo (met 09-94) said then that he knew the port intimately and had excellent contacts there because he was a shipping clerk in the docks before the war. He is now an HV (Croat) anti-aircraft battery sergeant based close to the Serb front lines within the Metkovic/Stolac/Dubrovnik triangle.
- Two weeks ago he revealed that NATO surveyors had been depth-measuring the port as early as 1992 (when UN troops were first deployed in the Balkans). This, it subsequently emerged was carried out by British Royal Navy personnel as a long-term contingency intelligence and planning operation perhaps in preparation for an emergency evacuation of British troops (see: Battling For Bosnia?)
- Route Gannet, the fastest, largest and best quality road into Central Bosnia runs from Split to Sarajevo via Ploce, Mostar, Jablanica and Konjic all within Croat/HVO/BiH federation control.
- One weakness of Route Gannet is that Serb front lines run very close to the road at Blagaj, Bijelo Polje and Konjic (artillery co-ordinates are well known and they are regularly mortared and shelled) while the pontoon bridge and damaged road bridge south of Jablanica are very vulnerable to further attack and destruction.
- Jasper de Quincy Adams (a British army officer attached to UNHCR) suggested on several occasions between 02-06-95 and 14-06-95 that British troops (presumably Task Force Alpha) would soon be getting tough and would be let off the leash.
- On 03-06-95 Gen. Sir John Wilsey and the British brigadier i/c Task Force Alpha would not confirm my comment/question that the troops would be used to punch a corridor through to Sarajevo from Kiseljak but said that if they did so it would fall within their UN mandate (really?). They sounded gung-ho. General Wilsey had a meeting later that day with the American admiral in charge of all naval forces in the region at Naples.
- On 14-06-95 Spanish military observers at Hotel Ero reported seeing a group of men dressed in local clothing and equipped for mountain climbing in the Bijelo Polje area (unlikely activity for local people at any time and especially so in an extremely exposed and regularly bombarded area!).
- On 15-06-95 we visited the signals section of BritFor at Divulje Barracks (for non-related reasons) and saw maps used by RAF signals officers which looked as if flights over Ploce were indicated.
- Also on 15-06-95 in discussions with Lt Col. Barry Hawgood, we mentioned our interest in Ploce. He seemed vague as to who would use which ports to land what but seemed convinced that Ploce would be an area well worth watching in about a week's time, suggesting that there would be British interest in the place. He was also adamant that withdrawal of British/NATO/UN forces was not a likely option and seemed to be suggesting that Ploce would be used to land more men, materials, etc. He suggested that large numbers of troops including British and American were on standby on board vessels off the coast.
- On 16-06-95 Veljo said that the recognition codes for NATO aircraft (probably flying from Avione, Italy) which might assist any sea-borne operation at Ploce had already been passed to his battery by his commanders at Divulje Barracks, Split. He also said that the port was completely empty and awaiting the arrival of large forces which would have to sail past Gradac to reach Ploce. Helicopter landing pads had been marked out which would allow up to three Chinooks to land at one time. One remaining enigma was why the signal lights on the apparently impassable Ploce/Mostar railway line were suddenly working brightly for the first time in two years!
- Also on 16-06-95 we visited Ploce harbour and found it completely empty of shipping apart from neatly moored tugs while the wharves, cranes, wharehouses, etc., were in immaculate (and very un-Yugoslav) order. Harbour office buildings were 'expectantly' empty. By pure chance we spotted a high-level delegation of senior officers from Britain, France, Belgium, the USA, etc., making what looked like a very discreet tour of inspection of the main office building, accompanied by (hosted by?) British logistics officers. They were clearly very surprised to see two journalists on the scene of their very clandestine visit. At first they acted 'innocent', but at a second meeting we confronted them saying we knew a landing was to take place.
This second meeting was one of those surreal events that only the chaos of war can contrive. Clearly this joint delegation of NATO officers believed their meeting was so secret that no-one else could have known about it. Consequently, when I approached a junior official at the entrance to the building to ask a routine question, I was immediately led upstairs to a boardroom where troop landings were being discussed on the assumption that I too was a delegate and privy to the proceedings! The senior NATO and Croat officials assembled on two sides of a long table were as puzzled by my presence as I was to find myself there. They asked me to take a seat at the end of the table but it wasn't long before I felt I had to tell them I was a British journalist which only left us all still more confused! Everyone round the table assumed that someone else knew who I was and why I was there. The situation became more farcical when the departing British delegates found their transport had not turned up and the Royal Navy landings specialist and a gentleman called Brian M Knight had to cadge a lift home in our Land Rover. The latter appeared unfamiliar with the necessary and inevitable need for mutual trust and co-operation between the military and obviously 'friendly and sensitive' members of the media (who may often know more than the military). He said he couldn't comment on anything and that any questions should be addressed to the Press Office at Divulje Barracks, Split, little realising that we would soon be telling the Press Office things it almost certainly didn't know. Asked about an impending landing, Mr Knight said, with some relish, that it was "far more likely people will be going out than in". This was scarcely credible! Obviously wrong information of this sort, given to people with an intimate knowledge of a region and events on the ground built up over many years does little to foster mutual trust and confidence. In cases of this sort it's important that military staff and responsible journalists, working side by side in war zones, appreciate that mutual co-operation and respect are essential. Mr Knight's bizarre opinion merely gave us carte blanche to publicise his statement (only adding to the image of Western disarray). An off-the-record briefing, coupled with a request for some sort of news embargo, would have been immediately respected.
We may now be watching the very first visible evidence of the Western 'world order' breaking down just as surely as the Eastern bloc imploded five years ago. [NB: six months later UNPROFOR's succesor, IFOR, was describing international troop contributions to Bosnia in terms of whether they were, or were not, NATO members!]
The UN, NATO, WEU, CSCE and EU are apparently incapable of setting an agreed agenda or achieving any set objectives in former Yugoslavia and just as incapable of pursuing any of the objectives that some of the participating countries can indeed agree on. Yugoslavia is, in itself, irrelevant. It merely provides a very complicated and apparently intractable set of dilemmas that would, ten years ago, have represented such a severe threat to world peace and Western interests that it would have been addressed immediately and decisively by concerted military, diplomatic and economic action. Since so few Western countries can truly pinpoint how or why warfare in ex-Yugoslavia threatens them and few apart from Germany, Greece and the emerging democracies of Central Europe can see any political or economic advantages from any of the possible outcomes, the major European powers are instead pursuing individual agendas which largely involve jockeying for significance in 'world affairs', the personal agendas of political leaders in the own countries and testing their abilities to manoeuvre vis-à-vis the USA, Russia and each other.
- The UN PROtection FORce, now renamed the UN Peace Force was originally intended to act as a buffer between warring parties in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina pending peace initiatives and negotiated settlements, imposing weapons exclusion zones and weapons collection sites.
- It was intended to acknowledge only the original borders of the former Yugoslav republics unless or until it achieved a negotiated settlement of border disputes satisfying all parties.
- It was intended to keep open all roads needed for the free movement of people and humanitarian aid, using military force to do so if necessary.
- It was intended to provide armed escorts for UNHCR and other aid convoys to ensure the free flow of humanitarian supplies.
- It was intended to protect the vulnerable 'safe areas' such as Sarajevo, Gorazde, Srebrenica, Zepa, etc., using military force to do so if necessary.
- It was intended to observe and monitor all activity on the ground with a mandate to protect observers using military force if necessary.
- It was mandated to use military force if necessary to protect UN personnel if they were threatened or attacked.
In fact, none of these intentions have been fulfilled and most have been abandoned because either the UN officials and diplomats took military decisions denying NATO action or because NATO and other military leaders on the ground were required to act as diplomats and thereby could not advise military action which would endanger the perceived diplomatic function of themselves and their troops. Weapons collection points have been routinely robbed (unchallenged) and have now frequently been abandoned; the original borders of the republics have, de facto, been forgotten (notably in Croatian Hercegovina, Krajina, and most of Bosnia) despite the fact that no negotiated treaties have been universally achieved; roads closed by warring factions are not challenged and the UN-negotiated 'handing over' of up to 50% of aid convoy cargoes to pirate factions or mafias has become routine and institutionalised; 'safe areas' have not been protected and are now largely abandoned; UN monitors have been withdrawn from most areas, usually at the demand of local factions; UN personnel and others, without adequate or effective protection, have been routinely held as hostages, killed or maimed, while their weapons, vehicles, equipment and personal effects have frequently been stolen without sanction or action.
Meanwhile, in the past few weeks, we have seen Britain and France form and deploy a joint Rapid Reaction Force, notionally under UN auspices but wearing regimental (non-UN) colours with camouflage-painted vehicles. It may be supported by Canada, New Zealand and others indicating that this is neither a UN nor a NATO initiative. Whether this is used decisively to achieve clear objectives aimed at enforcing peace and order along the original UN lines or whether it is a prelude to a withdrawal of troops in the region is still unclear. Even its commanders are unable to say what its military/strategic/political objectives might be. The point, however, is that non-NATO countries have clearly side-stepped the UN and by implication are indicating unwillingness to continue to serve the aims (if any) of the UN, of its general secretary Boutros Boutros Ghali or his special representative, Mr Akashi both widely regarded as ineffectual. This looks like the first steps in the emergence of a collapse of the old institutions and the birth, perhaps, of new structures.
N.B. For the first time in centuries, British troops, not acting as part of UN or other multi-national forces, come under the command of a French brigadier, André Soubiron. For the first time since 1944, British and French troops have landed on a European coast as an overtly aggressive joint force. For the first time since Suez in 1956, Britain and France have rejected US and UN policy and pursued a joint military policy overseas. The arrival today of the French Foreign Legion under Colonel Lecerf, combined with the components of Task Force Alpha (Devon & Dorsets [Col. Geoff Cook] and the 19th Field Artillery, etc.) may be the most powerful joint European force deployed on European soil since World War ll.
- 95-05-27 LNR/REUTERS (01) "ATTACK ON MOSTAR" Recorded two-way on evening of 27-05-95.
- 95-05-29 LNR/REUTERS (02) "UN/NATO WITHDRAWAL?" Live 2-way from EC Communications Centre Mostar, largely speculating on whether new British and American troop deployments might signal a preparation for withdrawal as mooted by EC, UNHCR and WEU personnel.
- 95-05-30 LNR/REUTERS (03) "LOCAL VIEW" Live 2-way for morning show.
- 95-06-01 LNR/REUTERS (04) "TOTAL UN CONFUSION" Live 2-way and spot following news at 7.00 am.
- 95-06-03 LNR/REUTERS (05) "ELEVEN BRIT HOSTAGES FREED?" Live 2-way with FM programme to discuss general situation on (satphone from Vitez).
- 95-06-03 LNR/REUTERS (07) "TASK FORCE ALPHA" Filed a report (satphone from Vitez) for Reuters Newsdesk in afternoon re creation of Task Force Alpha at Vitez announced by General Sir John Wilsey visiting Devon & Dorset troops with their 'Warriors' in Vitez.
- 95-06-04 LNR/REUTERS (08) "NEW BRITISH DEPLOYMENTS" Live 2-way re hostages, etc., and the creation of Task Force Alpha comprising Devon & Dorsets + 9th Field Regiment (RA) currently arriving at Gornji Vakuf.
- 95-06-04 LNR/REUTERS (09) "NEW BRITISH DEPLOYMENTS" Update live 2-way explaining the current position re new British deployments i.e. creation of Task Force Alpha comprising Devon & Dorsets + 9th Field Regiment (RA) currently arriving at Gornji Vakuf and the separate deployment of troops from 24th Air Mobile Brigade announced yesterday. Round up of views on general political position.
- 95-06-06 LNR/REUTERS (10) "BRITS TO MOVE?" Filed a report re indications from British UN officers that the British Vitez Taskforce Alpha was expected to be 'operational' on Friday (09-06-95) and may be 'active' next week. Also that large Croat (HV & HVO) troop movements were indicating a possible imminent assault in the Krajina area. Also, more UN hostages expected to be released overnight.
- 95-06-07 LNR/REUTERS (11) "TENSION IN SOUTH WEST BOSNIA" Filed report (from Mostar) re four days of shelling in northern Mostar with unconfirmed numbers of dead and injured; claims in local media that HVO forces have advanced along Veliki and Sator line to Peulje from which they now control the vital supply route to Knin; informed British sources still predict British deployment exercises this Friday prior to major action next week.
- 95-06-08 LNR/REUTERS (12) "TENSION IN SOUTH WEST BOSNIA" Live 2-way (from Mostar) covering shelling of Mostar, increasing tension generally, infantry advances near Bijelo Polje by BiH forces against Serbs; HVO claims that vital supply road linking Knin with the Posavina Corridor may now lie under HVO guns; explained the divisions and tensions in Mostar and expected action by British forces in Vitez. Could not comment on increased shelling in Sarajevo or the release of more UN hostages.
- 95-06-09 LNR/REUTERS (13) "BRITS IN VITEZ ON EXERCISES" Reported brief details of local BritBat news.
- 95-06-12 LNR/REUTERS (15) "MOBILISATION IN BOSNIA" Filed recorded news item from Gradac describing massive mobilisation of BiH forces within Tarcin/Travnik/Zenica triangle, seen by me over 4 days along front lines confirmed by UN Military Observers in Visoko and BritBat at Vitez. Apparent aim is impending strike at BSA for Ilijas, near Visoko to secure central Bosnia, possibly to permit a breakout from Sarajevo (coinciding with UN attempts to negotiate through passage from Kiseljak to Sarajevo).
- 95-06-15 LNR/REUTERS (17) "BRIT HOSTAGES INTERVIEW" Filed and fed report, interviews and actuality re five Royal Welch Fuseliers released after 17 days detention by BSA and paraded for press at Divulje Barracks, Split.
- 95-06-16 LNR/REUTERS (18) "SARAJEVO ERUPTS WITHDRAWAL?" Live 2-way commenting on the upsurge in fighting in Sarajevo over past 24 hours and on the confusion surrounding UN 'staying' or 'withdrawing'. Mentioned Ploce, Split and perhaps Makarska as possible landing points for French, British and US troops in, perhaps, a week or two. Also difficulties involved in crossing Central Bosnia with warfare now widespread.
- 95-06-16 LNR/REUTERS (19) "PLOCE LANDINGS AHEAD?" Recorded 3-way (including Defence Correspondent) describing Ploce Harbour, it wharves, warehouses and offices empty, apparently awaiting a NATO landing either to storm Bosnia or evacuate UN troops ashore. Described meeting top-level delegation of embarrassed British, French, Belgian and American officers apparently on a recce/briefing and all the supporting evidence there and inland for a large sea-borne landing.
- 95-06-19 LNR/REUTERS (21) "UN/NATO MELTDOWN" Filed report that British military sources and representatives of most other agencies now agree that there appears to be no strategy, no authority and no governing policy regarding the presence and activities of UN/NATO/EU/WEU/CSCE personnel in Croatia or Bosnia-Hercegovina and a widespread view that their presence here is untenable now that all the original aims of the UN operation have failed or been abandoned.
- 95-06-22 LNR/REUTERS (22) "RAPID REACTION FORCES LAND" Filed report that very large number of French troops had landed at Ploce (British troops now landing at Split and more to land at Ploce later) as part of the Rapid Reaction Force. The first time since 1944 that British & French troops had landed jointly on a European coast. The first Western forces in this war to appear in national (non-UN) colours and apparently prepared to act decisively with or without UN approval as from 15-07-95.
The author would like to express his deep gratitude to many many good friends in Mostar who, in the years 1992-95, offered him shelter, great kindness and support under appalling circumstances. Special thanks go to: Zehra and Laila Oglic; Asim, Dzevahira, Selma and Sabina Segatalo; Anka & Lazo Lazetic; and Fatima & Ismet Memic. Sadly Ismet Memic died in 1997 as a consequence of the torture and abuse he received while in Serb and Croat concentration camps in 1992-93.