Under cover of night, the enemy crept up the riverbank and infiltrated sleeping American troops’ tents before they could react. The soldiers had two choices: run or be overrun. So they fled.
This retreat, though, involved none of the armed factions the troops had come to keep apart. Instead, it was the first foe NATO troops have encountered in their fledgling mission to keep Bosnia’s peace - bad weather, this time the floodwaters of the rain-swollen Sava River.
“It was absolute panic,” said Sgt. Ken Ellsworth, an engineer asleep on a cot when two feet of Sava water made its surprise entry into his tent at 2:30 a.m. Thursday.
“We grabbed our M-16s, our night-vision goggles and what bags we could get hold of and threw them onto trucks,” Ellsworth said later Thursday as he was checked for frostbite in a hospital tent.
Even before encountering tense situations within Bosnia, U.S. and other NATO troops are fighting the weather, which bedeviled planes and helicopters with fog in Tuzla and has now turned Army sites around Zupanja into mud pits.
In Mostar, in southern Bosnia, the French Foreign Legion was faring little better. Chest-deep water swept across its low-lying camp Wednesday.
No one was injured, but 300 men had to be rescued by helicopter. The rest fled in vehicles or on foot.
“If this had come at night when the men were sleeping, they’d have been gone,” said Capt. Bernard Noblet, the sector spokesman.
In other developments in the former Yugoslavia:
The American commander of NATO forces in northeastern Bosnia said he was “very disappointed” to read a report that a U.S. colonel had accused Croatians of being racists who “kill people for the color of their skins.”
The latest of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Serbs in Sarajevo packed up Thursday to leave before the Bosnian capital is reunited under the peace plan and handed over to Muslim-Croat rule.
NATO commanders said they are pleased that rival factions had met the first deadline of the peace deal - pulling back from designated areas around Sarajevo by midnight Wednesday.
“We are very satisfied with the compliance in the past seven days,” Gen. George Joulwan, supreme allied commander, said in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, where the first NATO troops arrived Thursday.
Late Wednesday, in the nearby village of Bosnjaci, near Zupanja, an unidentified man parked a car near U.S. soldiers, fired approximately 30 rounds in their direction, then left. No one was injured, and U.S. forces did not return fire, said NATO spokesman Maj. William Pijters.
President Alija Izetbegovic said Thursday he would accept no extensions of deadlines in Bosnia’s peace deal. Rebel Serbs have requested a delay in handing over Serb parts of Sarajevo to Izetbegovic’s government. “We cannot speak of Serb Sarajevo,” he said.
For the past week, 150 engineers along the Sava River have been preparing its embankments for a floating bridge that American troops moving from Germany to Hungary and through Croatia will use to cross into Bosnia.
The river had been rising for the past two days, swollen by recent rains and melting snow.
Military officials had planned to move the engineers out of the flood plain but thought the river would stabilize and decided to wait.
When the water came in, the engineers used bulldozers to pull about 40 vehicles out of the water and salvaged whatever else they could. Some lost private belongings.
“There were about 2 inches of water when I got up. Before I knew it, it was already up to about a foot,” said a miserable Sgt. Terry Brown, lying inside the hospital tent.
Ellsworth was still able to joke about the hurried retreat.
“We call ourselves the ‘heavy metal warriors,”’ he said. “We have a new motto: ‘Heavy metal don’t float.”’
In Zagreb, the Croatian capital, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William G. Carter, a NATO force chief of staff, said he does not expect the timetable for the bridge to be affected unless the weather changes. Sections of the bridge are at the site, but construction has not begun.
The deployment from Germany has been hampered by a shortage of trains and assorted bureaucratic delays.