Long-term gains made, but mostly business as usual



December 29, 1996|By David Guest

LONDON -- The world made some notable investments in long-term peace in 1996.

The United Nations was able to announce bans on chemical weapons, land mines and nuclear testing.

But away from the chambers of the Security Council, short-term interests and local goals took precedence. In many of the world's conflicts it was, sadly, business as usual.

Middle East tension mounted steadily through the year. Israel returned to the offensive in Lebanon in April, in Operation Grapes of Wrath, to try to stop Iran-backed Hezbollah guerillas firing rockets into its territory. Beirut was bombed and 10,000 shells fell on southern Lebanon, but the rockets continued.

Despite a cease-fire and a change of government in Jerusalem, the peace process continued to falter.

Syria raised the temperature in September by redeploying troops and equipment in Lebanon. By year's end, Israel's relations with the Palestinians, Syria, Egypt and Jordan were edgy and cool. Perhaps more significant yet, military morale was in serious question.

In Iraq, the United States also returned to the offensive. It launched cruise-missile strikes at Iraq in early September for violations of the no-fly zone. But Saddam Hussein remained in power, apparently strengthened.

The region's other main bogyman, Iran, climaxed a year of military build-up with the arrival of another Kilo submarine from Russia. Bahrain accused Iran of stirring up opposition to its ruling al-Khalifa family, and in June it claimed to have foiled a Tehran-backed coup.

Islamic groups opposed to the Western presence in Saudi Arabia bombed the Khobar Towers near Dhahran on June 25, killing 19 U.S. service personnel and wounding almost 400 people. In October, coalition forces moved to a more secure desert base at al-Kharj.

Turkey emerged as a key regional power-broker in 1996, signing military agreements with Israel and Jordan and talking to Iraq about Kurdish separatism. It continued to struggle with the Kurdistan Workers Party, launching operations in April, June and August. The Kurds hit back through three female suicide bombers.

Turkey also contributed to mounting tension on Cyprus. It sent additional units to counter what it saw as Greek Cypriot build-ups.

In June, Turks shot a Greek Cypriot soldier on the Green Line, the dividing line since the Turkish invasion in 1983. In August two more Greek Cypriot protesters were killed. But toward the end of the year, the prospect of peace talks looked healthy.

Turkey and Greece also managed to lower the temperature in the Aegean, where ancient enmity continued to spill over into occasional violence.

In the Near East, Islamic fundamentalism was at the root of several conflicts.

Libya had trouble with dissidents, mainly Islamic fundamentalists. Col. Muammar el Kadafi sent troops east to quell discontent in March and in August his air force bombed militants in the eastern mountains. In April, the United States warned that underground construction work at Tarhunal, 40 miles southeast of Tripoli, would not be allowed to finish. U.S. officials believe the site is to be a chemical-weapons plant.

In Algeria violence erupted before a referendum in November. The vote itself, on whether to ban political parties based on creed or race, passed off relatively peacefully in the secular government's favor.

Violence spilled over into Europe. In France, no-warning bombings occurred in Paris, and sabotage was suspected briefly when a train caught fire in the Channel Tunnel.

Elsewhere in Europe were reminders of long-running conflicts.

In Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army bombed British Army headquarters in Lisburn. This was its first attack on a military installation in two years. In Spain, a bomb planted by Basque separatists killed an Army sergeant in Cordoba. Separatist bombers on Corsica claimed responsibility for several bombings since November 1995 but promised to maintain a cease-fire to October.

In eastern Europe, NATO could claim a measure of success in implementing the Dayton agreement for Bosnia.

Its Implementation Force lost 50 peacekeepers during the year, but none to fire from the former warring factions. There were tit-for-tat killings in Mostar in spring and fighting in November in the northeast, and the continuing freedom of war criminals looked likely to be a running sore.

But NATO agreed to replace I-FOR with a Stabilization Force of 30,000 for 1997.

In Croatia, Eastern Slavonia continued to be a potential flash point. At least 150,000 Serbs live there and only a few hundred non-Serbs.

Africa could claim at least one success for peace in 1996. In Sierra Leone, a coup in January led to elections in March and a new president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. In December, he and Revolutionary United Front leader Foday Sankoh signed a peace accord to end the five-year civil war which has cost 10,000 lives.

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