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Source: c.1994 Newsweek
(Distributed by New York Times Special Features)



TUZLA: It was late at night when the Bosnian Serbs began to shell a United Nations observation post called Tango Two in the Sapna Finger, a Muslim-held salient near Tuzla.

Danish Lt. Col. Lars Moller of the Nordic Battalion ordered two platoons of his Leopard tanks to charge to the rescue, which was just what the Serbs expected.

As the seven tanks reached the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain, the Serbs opened fire with antitank missiles, artillery and machine guns.

``It was an ambush, and a damn good one,'' Colonel Moller said. ``Tango Two was the cheese, and we were the mouse. But this time the mouse ate the cat.''

One Danish platoon took cover behind buildings; the other maneuvered to high ground and counterambushed. When it was over, nine Serb soldiers were dead.

The ``Nordbat'' suffered no casualties. More important, it had done what no other U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia had done before: strike back at the Serbs with force.

The April 30 battle of the Sapna Finger does not signal a change in U.N. strategy; in fact, U.N. officials in Sarajevo later played down its significance and hinted that Moller's troops had overreacted.

For some, though, it made a deadly point about how Western peacekeepers might fare against a Serb force that until now has had the field to itself.

Confrontation with the Serbs is not in the U.N.'s official playbook. That was clear a few days after the Sapna Finger fight.

When Bosnian Serbs violated their own agreements and blocked a convoy of British peacekeepers on their way to the U.N.-designated ``safe haven'' of Gorazde, the U.N.'s special representative, Yasushi Akashi, cut a deal.

In exchange for letting the U.N. troops go in, he allowed the Serbs to move at least five tanks across the 20-kilometer zone around Sarajevo from which heavy Serb weapons are banned under threat of NATO airstrikes.

The tanks reportedly were redeployed on the Serbs' southern front. Incensed, Bosnian government authorities demanded Akashi's resignation as the top U.N. official in the former Yugoslavia.

Other U.N. officials in Sarajevo tried to cover up the continued presence of 100 Serb soldiers within three kilometers of Gorazde and some heavy weapons within the no-go zone around that city, too, despite NATO's orders that they withdraw or face airstrikes.

In contrast, the Nordic Battalion, drawing on a long history of peacekeeping work by its Danish, Swedish and Norwegian troops, has showed how a tough stance can work in Bosnia.

When Croat troops massacred the villagers of Stupni Do, Nordbat moved in, protecting survivors and preventing further violence against Muslims in the nearby town of Vares. Then, when Muslim troops took Vares, Nordbat intervened to make sure there were no reprisals.

They didn't go looking for a fight at Sapna Finger; the battalion's Tango Two post had been shelled 28 times since February, and their tanks had come under Serb attack nearly a dozen times in a month.

Moller, 40, the battalion's deputy commander and its top tank officer, is a past karate champion; his father was a Danish Resistance fighter in World War II, and his brother is also a U.N. soldier in Croatia.

He speaks English sprinkled with American slang he picked up on NATO
maneuvers, but with an English officer's accent that seems to match his walking stick. ``Turning your cheek is the wrong way down here,'' he says.
``There's a lot of macho bullshit down here and you have to adapt your
behavior accordingly.''

The battle at Sapna Finger was an important lesson in what might be in store if a NATO peacekeeping force is sent here.

``The ambush was bad juju on their part. We are not here to take incoming,'' Moller said. ``Fortunately for them, we are not here to get involved either. We could have destroyed all of them and been in Zvornik by morning.''

In setting their ambush, the Serbs had deployed Soviet-made T-55 tanks in fixed positions; they are accustomed to fighting artillery duels against forces with little ability to fire back.

The Danes watched the tanks' infrared searchlights try to find and target their Leopards, but easily stayed out of their sights.

The T-55s were sitting targets, but the U.N. tanks never opened fire against them: under U.N. rules of engagement, they are not allowed to attack Serb tanks unless sensors show that the opposing cannons are warm, meaning that they have recently been fired.

Tank commander Maj. Carsten Rasmussen said the Danes prevailed thanks to superior training, tactics and technology all assets that a NATO peacekeeping force would bring to Bosnia.

Most U.N. troops on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia have been neither as aggressive nor as successful as Nordbat. Although last week U.N. commander General Sir Michael Rose praised the tank action during a visit to Copenhagen, many U.N. officials privately have criticized the Scandinavian troops.

Rose himself has repeatedly turned down their requests for airstrikes when they are attacked by artillery beyond their cannon range. Unless some kind of settlement brings NATO peacekeepers to the country, Moller's dragoons will remain more of an exception than an example.