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Beefed-up U.N. unit beset with confusion in Bosnia

The rapid-reaction force created to save the United Nations in Bosnia is barely a week old, but already it is mired in confusion and controversy.

The rebel Serb leader has warned the 12,500-member force _ composed of British, French and Dutch troops _ to stay clear of the two-thirds of Bosnia he controls. The Bosnian Croats don't want the force on their land. The Muslim-led Bosnian government worries the troops could interfere with its offensive.

The United States, which will help bankroll the force, is fighting with the United Nations over how tough it should be.

Britain and France, supplying the bulk of the troops, are debating its "robustness," even as the chief U.N. envoy promised the force will operate under the same rules that allow Bosnia's 23,000 other beleaguered peacekeepers to use only minimum force.

Meanwhile, 1,700 French Foreign Legionnaires, camouflaged tanks and armored personnel carriers are stuck in southern Croatia, symbolizing the inertia that followed the rush to send them there.

When the Serbs took British and French soldiers hostage last month, the two nations quickly sent more soldiers toward Bosnia, although the forces lacked a mission and even a base.

"It grew out of a knee jerk," said a Western military official who refused to be identified. "The politicians were making military policy as they went."

A British-French team is at U.N. headquarters in Croatia, trying to formulate more aggressive rules of engagement for the new force, estimated to cost $400-million for six months. U.S. funding is linked to the force's freedom to use force where necessary.

"We can't operate under the current rules of engagement," said Maj. Bob Barnes of Britain's Devon and Dorset Regiment's 1st Battalion.

But U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali apparently insists on the status quo.

Although the U.N. Security Council formally authorized a rapid reaction force June 16, it had taken form weeks earlier, after Bosnian Serbs seized hundreds of peacekeepers to retaliate for NATO air strikes last month.

Backed by light tanks, attack helicopters and artillery, the force was supposed to offer the ability to defend peacekeepers under attack, to secure aid routes and an option of retaliation below NATO air power. It also staved off calls for a U.N. withdrawal.

But in a letter last week, chief U.N. envoy Yasushi Akashi assured the Bosnian Serbs the reaction force would be impartial _ though they have taken peacekeepers hostage twice in six months _ and would operate under existing rules.

A U.N. source said "the tone of the letter . . . was simpering" and effectively removed "the deterrent value" of the new force.

Quick to exploit dissension in foreign ranks, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said Friday: "No letter will soften us. We don't see any need for such forces in the region. We recommend them to stay as far as possible from us."

The Serbs are not the only doubters. Bosnian officials worry the extra U.N. troops could interfere with their attempts to win in battle what they have not secured in peace talks.

And Kresimir Zubak, leader of Bosnia's Croats allied with the government army, said he would not allow French troops to deploy until the United Nations explained fully "their status, mandate, role and command structure."

U.N. peacekeepers, supposedly the beneficiaries of the new force, are equally befuddled. "What are they going to do here?" asked one mid-level U.N. commander.

The rapid-reaction force is already being referred to as the "reserve force," said the Western military official, adding, "If you shuffle the letters of "reserve' you get "reverse.' "

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