Troops assume new role in Bosnia U.S. force to provide 'area security' for war crimes officials

32 suspected mass graves

Soldiers in Srebrenica to give investigators limited support

April 01, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Marking an important step in the U.S. role in securing Bosnia's peace, American soldiers will provide security to United Nations war crimes investigators this week as they begin examining suspected mass graves, officials said yesterday.

Word that U.S. soldiers are about to offer limited support to the gruesome, politically sensitive work beginning tomorrow near the former "safe area" of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina coincided with a visit to the country yesterday by Defense Secretary William J. Perry, who said he fully supports the plan.

Since their arrival three months ago, U.S. troops have refrained from establishing a presence around suspected mass graves near the former Muslim enclave, focusing instead on disarming Bosnia's warring factions and helping civilians move about safely.

U.S. troops have made routine road patrols around Srebrenica but until now have made only one reconnaissance tour of the suspected gravesites.

But tomorrow, troops from the 1st Armored Division's 2nd Brigade are scheduled to begin providing "area security" for investigators from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia as they begin the job of finding out what atrocities occurred during and after the fall of Srebrenica last summer.

U.S. troops have been assigned four relatively narrow tasks. They will act as a communications link between the investigators and the multinational peacekeeping force in Bosnia; they will make sure no organized local military forces approach during the investigations; they will ac- commodate and feed the U.N. investigators at the Army's nearest base camp; and they will offer first aid and help with disabled vehicles.

Equally important is what the U.S. soldiers will not do: They will not exhume bodies or approach the gravesites but will remain at a distance, staying in touch with hand-held radios. Nor will U.S. soldiers drive the U.N. investigators through Bosnia in Army vehicles.

"We are not providing bodyguards for the [war crimes investigators]," said Col. Mark Brzozowski, spokesman for Task Force Eagle, the U.S. component of the multinational force.

Colonel Brzozowski said that if the investigators run into serious trouble with hostile Serbs, the U.S. soldiers will step in, "but the first priority is for the local [Serbian] police force to establish order."

Srebrenica was a U.N.-protected Muslim enclave until it was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces in July. As many as 8,000 Muslim men disappeared as they tried to escape the onslaught. Few doubts remain that the Muslims were hunted down and killed as they fled and that their bodies lie in at least 32 mass graves near the city.

Responsibility for the Srebrenica killings could extend up the chain of command to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic. The two men have been indicted by the U.N. tribunal on war crimes charges but remain in power, despite calls by Bosnian government officials for NATO forces to seize them.

Witnesses have offered testi- mony on the alleged Srebrenica massacre, but now that the snow is melting it has become possible to excavate the suspected mass graves and bolster the prosecution's case against those believed to have ordered the deaths.

Human-rights advocates have repeatedly called on U.S. troops to assist the U.N. war crimes investigators, who are based in The Hague, Netherlands.

But the Army has avoided doing anything that might look as if it were ganging up on the Bosnian Serbs. Commanders argue that putting too much pressure on the alleged war criminals might damage the fragile peace process.

That process got a boost yesterday when Bosnia's Muslim-Croat federation regrouped to save a shaky union.

Croatian and Muslim officials signed an agreement to jointly collect customs duties starting today and use them to finance the moribund federation. They also agreed on a green-white-and-red flag, as well as to fuse financial structures and to form local governments across federation territory.

During his visit yesterday, Mr. Perry held talks with NATO commanders and with acting Bosnian President Ejup Ganic. In response to journalists' questions about possible NATO assistance in arresting Dr. Karadzic and General Mladic, Mr. Ganic said he was "begging" the international peace enforcers to make the arrests.

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Mr. Perry said, "We [the peacekeepers] are not on a manhunt. We are not going to go out searching for them. But if we come across them, we will arrest them."

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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