The largest group of Americans so far - including a combat-ready contingent of 22 Marines - flew into this wintry capital Sunday as NATO inched toward taking on the task of peace enforcement in former Yugoslavia.
The Marines, wearing combat gear and carrying duffel bags, emerged from a C-130 Sunday afternoon and walked across the tarmac in formation, carrying an American flag and a blue company banner.
Mobbed by reporters and photographers, they appeared startled by the interest in their journey from Naples to Bosnia and most of them shied away from questions.
Marine Maj. Bill Smith said he felt “really good” about what is expected to be a yearlong NATO mission to enforce a negotiated peace agreement among the warring factions of Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats. “We’re doing something good here,” the Tennessee native said, adding that he had no worries - “none whatsoever” - about troop deployment in a region that has been fractured by communal battles for 3-1/2 years.
U.S. Army Maj. Thomas Moyer, spokesman for the NATO “enabling force,” said the soldiers will be trained by Egyptian peacekeepers, here as part of the U.N. force, for security work around the NATO headquarters.
NATO will be taking over the U.N. headquarters beginning Dec. 19, when the formal transfer of authority is to occur.
About 2,500 NATO troops soldiers making up the force that will lay the logistical groundwork for the 60,000 NATO troops will be in place by the end of the week, Moyer said. About 700 Americans will participate in that force and about 20,000 Americans will be in the entire NATO force.
Most of the Americans will be based in Tuzla in the northeast, headquarters for the U.S. sector. The British sector is in the northwest, and the French will be around Sarajevo and in Goradze in the south.
Among the military personnel who arrived Sunday afternoon, were 47 Americans, including the 22 Marines, 12 Air Force and 2 Army police and 11 staff. Also on board were 19 Italian police and one French staff person, according to NATO.
“Things will start to pick up now,” Moyer said. “There will be a continual flow of C-130s and other aircraft here” throughout the week.
The Marines were sent to the Egyptian U.N. battalion in Sarajevo as NATO scrambles to find housing in the war-torn city.
Soldiers are expected to be deployed in neighborhoods throughout the capital region, including Ilidza, one of five Serb-held suburbs of Sarajevo that will revert to Bosnian-government control and whose residents have protested the peace plan.
Residents in the suburbs will vote Tuesday on the peace plan, a vote that Western diplomats and U.N. officials here have said is meaningless.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic - who has both decried and supported the accord - said Sunday that the war “will come to a definite end” when the peace accord is signed Thursday in Paris.