A U.S. soldier was killed Saturday when he apparently triggered a land mine while manning a checkpoint in a northern Bosnian town, the first American to die during the international peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.
His death came as U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited the region to urge Bosnia’s former warring factions to abide by the terms of the U.S.-brokered peace accord.
Christopher heralded the “excellent” progress in complying with the accord. “Although there are problems, the net pluses outweigh the negatives,” he said at a news conference in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.
The former combatants faced a Saturday deadline to withdraw forces from areas that are passing from the control of one group to another under last year’s Dayton, Ohio, agreement, and NATO officials said compliance was on track.
U.S. officials expressed remorse over the death of the American soldier, whose name was being withheld pending notification of his next of kin.
“I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of an American soldier in Bosnia,” President Clinton said while campaigning in Manchester, N.H. “All of our troops should know that today our thoughts and our sincere gratitude are with them, especially on this difficult day.”
Clinton said the soldier’s death did not change his support for the deployment of 20,000 U.S. troops as part of a 60,000-strong peacekeeping mission.
“They should know that he died in the noblest of causes - the pursuit of peace….
“We will continue to take every precaution we can to protect our troops as they work to secure an enduring peace in Bosnia,” he said.
Learning about the death of the American just hours after he visited Tuzla, where U.S. forces in Bosnia are based, Christopher said the United States must honor the sacrifice of American troops “by doing all that we can to fulfill the promise of peace in this troubled land.”
“The tragic death of one of these fine men hits home especially hard on a day when the faces and voices of our men and women in Bosnia - and the transformation they have achieved in this country - rests so vividly in my mind,” Christopher said.
The soldier was fatally wounded while on duty at a checkpoint in Gradacac, a town about 25 miles north of Tuzla that was devastated during the 3-1/2-year war, according to Col. Robert Gaylord, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
He was evacuated by helicopter and pronounced dead at a field hospital in nearby Zupanja, Croatia.
Military officials in Bosnia and
Washington refused to release additional details about the incident or the soldier who was killed. There is a U.S. camp in Gradacac, but it is not known if the soldier was based there.
A full investigation of the incident was not expected to begin until this morning because of the risks of searching a minefield in the dark, but the officials said they felt certain the mine was one of the millions placed during the war.
“I don’t think it was anything directed against the American forces. It was a mine. Mines have no conscience,” Gaylord said after a brief news conference at Tuzla’s air base.
The land mines planted through out the war-torn countryside are considered the greatest threat to the safety of the peacekeepers. Although Saturday’s death was the first American fatality of the mission, eight other North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops have been killed since NATO started deploying forces to the Balkans in December.
NATO forces have received infor mation on 7,000 minefields containing approximately 700,000 mines, according to Maj. Gen. Mike Willcocks, chief of staff for NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. But conservative estimates put the total number of mines in Bosnia at 3 million.
The buffer zones that NATO troops patrol between the former enemy armies, as well as some of the areas being transferred Saturday, are “riddled with mines, most unmarked,” Willcocks said.
Under the accord, Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats were required to have marked their mines by now. But weather, the sheer volume of mines and a lack of information on where many are have prevented that from happening, Willcocks said.
Saying that Bosnia suffers from “mine pollution,” Willcocks quoted the commander of the Bosnian army, Gen. Rasim Delic, as saying it will take 30 years to rid the country of all its mines.
Other officials were visiting some of Bosnia’s killing fields Saturday. Manfred Nowak, the top missing persons expert for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, inspected the Ljubija mine near Prijedor in northwestern Bosnia, where war crimes victims are believed to be buried.
Mines in the coal pits will delay excavation of the bodies, but digging could begin in April, said Nowak.
U.N. human rights envoy Elizabeth Rehn was scheduled to go to the region of Srebrenica today to investigate survivors’ reports of massacres by Serbs last summer.
Up to 7,000 bodies may be buried around Srebrenica, U.S. officials say. Bosnia has an estimated 300 mass graves.
xxxx Bosnia casualties A brief look at casualties suffered by NATO-led forces in Bosnia: Nine soldiers of the NATO-led force in Bosnia-Herzegovina now have died since the deployment began in December, most in mine accidents. There are between 3 million and 6 million mines sown throughout Bosnia, about 30 percent of them marked. The American killed Saturday was the first U.S. soldier to die in action in Bosnia. Three British soldiers were killed last week when their vehicle hit a mine. Two Portuguese and an Italian were killed when an explosive went off in a NATO compound. A Swedish soldier died when his car slipped off a road and a British soldier committed suicide at Christmas. Another American soldier died at a logistics base in Hungary Jan. 18, apparently of a heart attack. More than 40 soldiers in the NATO force, including three U.S. soldiers, have been injured, mostly in mine accidents. - Associated Press