Associated Press

June 6, 1997

Muslims, Croats Make Bosnia Gains

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Tanks and armored personnel carriers roared in formation along hedgerows, laying a well-timed smokescreen for advancing infantry. In the distance, gunners barked out coordinates for a mock artillery barrage.

Bosnian officers at the first postwar maneuvers of the army's Fifth Corps beamed with pride at the coordination of its units and enthusiasm of its troops.

The Fifth Corps' showing in the exercises illustrates the transformation of the Bosnian army, which was hurriedly formed under Serb attack in 1992 as a makeshift force of home guards, street toughs and policemen.

Western training and an influx of modern Western armaments are gradually shifting the balance of power between the former -- and possibly future -- adversaries.

For the past year, the federation army has been trained by Military Professional Resources Inc., a Virginia-based company run by a group of retired U.S. generals. The same group helped neighboring Croatia turn its army into a modern fighting force that stunned Serb rebel foes in 1995.

The $400 million ``equip and train'' program for the Bosnian army, financed by Washington and moderate Muslim countries, is designed to create military parity with the Bosnian Serbs, who used their superiority in armored forces to devastating effect during the 3 1/2-year Bosnian war.

Washington has donated 45 M60 tanks, 80 armored personnel carriers, 15 helicopters, and other equipment. The United Arab Emirates are delivering 100 French-made AMX-30 tanks and APCs, and 116 U.S. howitzers are on their way.

In contrast, the Serb army has been in steady decline since the 1995 Dayton peace accord, which ended fighting in Bosnia. The agreement created a joint Bosnian state with two entities: the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic.

But Serbs have reneged on the agreement's central provision: repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Muslim and Croat refugees they expelled during the war. This is putting political pressure on the federation government to consider regaining territory by unleashing a new war.

With 30,000 NATO-led peacekeepers serving as a buffer, fighting is unlikely until next June, when the force is scheduled to depart.

During recent Bosnian army exercises, coordinators from Military Professional Resources Inc. led an artillery group through a scaled-down approximation of an actual attack. After the ``bombardment,'' tanks kicking up clouds of smoke and dust pushed forward, and foot soldiers bound through the rocky terrain behind them.

While the American advisers rarely talk to reporters, NATO officers monitoring the exercise praised the army's staff and logistics work.

Surprisingly, in view of the long-term threat posed by the Bosnian army, the governing Serbian Democratic Party has weakened its forces by purging the officer corps, replacing wartime commanders with political hacks. Its new head, Lt. Gen. Pero Colic -- a sergeant in the Yugoslav army until 1992 -- owes his rapid promotions to close ties with the party leadership.

Trying to retain military superiority, Serbs have refused to cut heavy weapons to levels specified by a disarmament accord. It allocates 273 tanks and 1,000 artillery pieces to the federation, and 137 tanks and 500 guns to the Serbs.

Serbs have about 1,000 tanks and artillery pieces over the limit, said David Foley, a spokesman for the organization overseeing the arms control process.

The international community has retaliated by blocking aid to the Serbs, leaving their republic one of Europe's poorest regions. Monthly salaries average just $30.

Lack of cash means Serb soldiers' pay is late, and all army exercises are curtailed.

Morale has plunged, fed in part by the plight of families of Serb soldiers killed or maimed in the war.

In a letter read out recently in the Serb parliament, Milica Curcic -- widow of a fallen soldier -- said the government had ceased payments to thousands of dependents of dead fighters, leaving them destitute.