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Refugee Returns at Heart of Bosnia Peace

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

MONS, Belgium, May 20, 1998 – Bosnian refugees will return home despite ethnic separatists' attempts to thwart them. "These refugees are going to return home. They are not going to be denied," NATO's supreme allied commander Europe said here May 15.

"They're going to show that the power of the ethnic separatists is a thing of the past in Bosnia," Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark said. "People on all sides want this to work. They just want this over with. They just want to get on with their lives."

People truly want to go home to the land where they grew up, where their grandparents planted orchards, where their ancestors are buried, Clark said. In many areas, Croats, Serbs and Muslims are returning home successfully, he said.

Hard-liners who engendered ethnic hatred and separatism during the war want to sabotage the return process, he said. In April, for instance, some of the 1,000 or so Serb refugees returning to Drvar in northwest Bosnia met violent opposition.

Families living in the town center were burned out in what Clark called a "premeditated, armed attack by hard core, ethnic separatists using incendiary devices." Two elderly Serbs died when separatists torched their home. Those responsible, including local police and civilian government authorities at all levels, will be held accountable, he stressed.

These "ugly incidents" are not spontaneous demonstrations of popular resistance, but well-organized sabotage, Clark said. Ethnic separatists are challenging the international community, but they are losing their power and credibility step by step, bit by bit, he said.

Clark said the international community in coming months intends to move ahead with refugee returns in minority areas. Muslims have agreed to bring people back into Sarajevo. The Republic of Srpska's new prime minister, Milorad Dodik, has said he hopes to see 70,000 refugees return. Serb areas around Brcko are seeing a vast return of Muslim residents driven out during the war. Some Serbs living in the Banja Luka and Prijedor areas want to return to homes in southwest Bosnia.

September elections could further refugee returns. Clark said international authorities hope voters in the several local and national elections will elect pluralist, multiethnic leaders committed to the Dayton accord.

Clark called the elections important for Bosnia and for the international community because results will determine to what extent NATO can begin to drawdown its peacekeeping forces. About 35,000 NATO and non-NATO troops, including nearly 7,000 Americans, are slated to remain in Bosnia beyond the June end date of the stabilization force mission. Clark said he expects that number to remain constant through the elections.

Detailed plans for the follow-on force, now being finalized, call for maintaining the same force structure, but with a smaller headquarters staff. After the elections, NATO will consider drawdowns on an area-by-area basis, Clark said.

One feature of the follow-on force is specifically aimed at maintaining law and order. A new, 800-strong Multinational Specialized Unit will support refugee returns and help implement election results. These specialized troops will have the discipline, cohesion and warfighting skills of a military force, plus special equipment and training in police skills, Clark said. Negotiations on which nations will contribute special troops are under way. At present about 100 Argentines, 500 Italians and a platoon from Romania are expected to be part of the special unit during its first six-month rotation.

Some NATO-led stabilization force units are trained and equipped to deal with mob violence, but others are not, Clark said. The unit in Drvar during the recent violence, for example, did not have that training. While the unit could not prevent the incident, it stopped the mob by firing shots into the air and in the ground in front of their feet.

"The Multinational Specialized Unit will be trained and equipped to help deter mob violence should it occur," he said. "They're trained in riot control techniques and how to handle such situations effectively and safely."

The special unit will operate as part of a reserve force under the control of the SFOR commander. This added asset will enhance the NATO-led stabilization force's ability to maintain a secure environment so civilian authorities can continue Bosnia's reconstruction, Clark said.

What remains to be done in Bosnia requires the combined commitment of the international community and the NATO-led peacekeeping force, he said. "The civilian leaders of the international community cannot do their work without SFOR's presence and support, but we can't do it for them to the very end."

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