BRUSSELS — As Bosnia's warring factions stagger toward an uncertain peace, NATO planners have begun to put together a force of about 50,000 to enforce an eventual settlement in the region.
The alliance-led force would replace the beleaguered United Nations peacekeepers now deployed in Bosnia-Herzegovina and would put as many as 25,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground in the Balkans.
Such a mission would break new ground for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, placing alliance forces for the first time in the role of enforcing peace and deploying NATO units alongside troops from non-alliance countries.
Officials at NATO headquarters here said Friday that planners had been told to complete the concept for the "peace-implementation force" by the end of next week.
"There is a sense of urgency," one official said. "Once [a Bosnian peace] agreement is reached, it will be extremely important to establish a force quickly. We need to show immediately we intend to enforce what is agreed [upon]."
So far, the Clinton Administration is said to be considering a commitment of between 8,000 and 25,000 U.S. ground troops to the operation. Britain has also said it would contribute forces, although no figures have been mentioned. Paris and Bonn have reportedly discussed making elements of the Franco-German Eurocorps available for the mission.
NATO officials added that non-NATO forces, most likely from Russia and some Islamic nations, would be involved in the operation. An expression of these countries' willingness to take part could come at a meeting Tuesday in New York that is expected to bring together the foreign ministers representing the three warring parties. Representatives of the five-nation Contact Group--made up of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States--which is attempting to broker a peace in the region also are expected to take part.
NATO officials stressed that the alliance would keep control of any force assigned to implement a peace accord in Bosnia but would require a U.N. Security Council mandate before it began deployment.
"Any agreed mission would be under U.N. authority," an alliance official stressed.
This condition effectively means that Russia must approve both the political and military framework under which the NATO-led force would operate.
Russian diplomats have made clear that the Kremlin will insist on a role in any future peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, and have vowed to use their Security Council veto to scuttle any attempt to deploy a force made up only of troops from NATO countries.
"Russia will not hesitate to use its right of veto if the issue of sending NATO forces to Bosnia under the U.N. mandate is raised in the Security Council," the Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed senior official of the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying.
Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev voiced the same views last week when U.S. officials first suggested that a peace-enforcement force include Russian soldiers as well as NATO troops.
Russia has 1,500 soldiers in the U.N. Protection Force in the former Yugoslav federation, including one battalion deployed in Serb-held territory around Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital--an area heavily hit during NATO's recent air strikes.
Moscow has been more protective of the Serbs than has any other country, and a Russian presence to patrol any peace accord would likely be a condition for Serb agreement on a territorial split.
To put together the force to implement a peace accord, NATO strategists are said to be drawing from two previous alliance operations planned for Bosnia but never carried out. The first of these, completed in 1993, detailed the deployment of a NATO force of 70,000 to enforce the ill-fated Vance-Owen peace plan. That proposal died after being rejected by the Bosnian Serbs.
Alliance officials here said major territorial shifts in Bosnia that have occurred since early summer as a result of fighting have erased several isolated pockets and enclaves of Muslims and Serbs, thus making any new peace agreement far easier to enforce than the Vance-Owen plan would have been.
"It's all much neater now," an alliance official said.
The second operation on which alliance planners are drawing is the detailed plan formally approved barely two months ago for rescuing the U.N. peacekeeping force in the former Yugoslav federation if the region collapsed into total war. That plan called for a 65,000-strong NATO force in the region.
Despite these existing plans, major questions remain unanswered:
* What kind of force would it be? It remains unclear whether any troops deployed would be lightly armed, in the tradition of U.N. peacekeeping forces, or combat-ready, backed by heavy weapons and ready to enforce peace by swiftly punishing those who violate it. Dispatching a combat force would be more costly and require parliamentary approval in many NATO countries.