SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — American flag in hand, the first contingent of U.S. Marines to form part of NATO's Balkan peacekeeping deployment landed here Sunday.
As North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops continued to trickle into the region, a French deadline for the Bosnian Serbs to provide information on two missing pilots expired without word on the men's whereabouts. France has threatened retaliation if the Serbs do not answer questions about the fate of the two Frenchmen, who were shot down Aug. 30 and captured by the Bosnian Serbs.
A U.S.-brokered peace agreement ending the 44-month war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is scheduled to be signed Thursday in Paris, clearing the way for the arrival of a full force of 60,000 NATO troops, a third of them American, assigned to make the treaty work.
Advance teams of surveyors, logistics experts and communications experts have been arriving in recent days in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, and Tuzla, the future U.S. headquarters in northeastern Bosnia.
The 22 Marines who arrived Sunday from their base in Naples, Italy, were joined later in the day by 32 U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers, constituting the largest group yet of American troops to be deployed. A NATO spokesman said the number of American GIs on the ground in Bosnia rose to more than 100 Sunday.
"It's a good opportunity--to get over here and do something good," Marine Maj. Bill Smith told reporters waiting at the frigid, sandbagged Sarajevo airport.
The Marines, hunched under the weight of their battle gear, climbed out of a C-130 transport plane onto the shell-pocked runway. One carried a furled American flag; another hoisted a regimental banner.
The Marines were transported to a barracks being used by a unit of Egyptian U.N. peacekeepers, whose role in Bosnia is ending with the arrival of NATO troops. The barracks, constructed during the Austro-Hungarian rule of the late 1800s and early 1900s and sitting on a bank of the Miljacka River near Sarajevo's Old Quarter, shows the scars of the Bosnian Serb shelling campaign that terrorized this city through much of the war.
In Washington on Sunday, President Clinton stressed that the U.S. troops in the Balkans will leave after a year even if the Dayton, Ohio, peace agreement falls apart.
"For a force of this size to stay any longer than that would run the risk of [turning] into an occupation force," the president said in an interview on the CBS-TV program "60 Minutes."
"We don't believe that's right. Neither do they."
Even if U.S. leaders realize that the force's departure will lead to renewed fighting?
"If that is the case," Clinton said, "we should still terminate the mission. If we leave after a year, and they decide they don't like the benefits of peace and they're going to start fighting again, that does not mean NATO failed.
"It means we gave them a chance to make their peace and they blew it."
Clinton acknowledged in the White House interview that he cannot promise that no Americans will be killed or wounded as the troops move into a region that is littered with thousands of land mines, or that none will be taken as hostages or prisoners.
"You cannot assume there won't be any casualties," he said. "If the worst happens, what we did was, we gave them a chance."
But, he added, "we can't guarantee results forever and ever. I can't promise peace in the world forever and ever."
Meanwhile, a midnight Sunday deadline for information on the two downed French pilots passed unheeded. There has been speculation that the men are dead, but French officials say they have not received concrete news since the two were photographed, alive, in the custody of the Bosnian Serbs.
The United States has joined France in demanding that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic pressure the Bosnian Serbs into making a full accounting.
France said over the weekend that the unresolved issue of its missing pilots will not prevent Thursday's signing ceremony, but French anger undoubtedly complicates the peace process. Paris is contributing the troops who will patrol the potentially most explosive area in postwar Bosnia, the Sarajevo sector, where disgruntled Serbs have been protesting the imminent return of Serb-held suburbs to government control.
The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, has been agitating the irate Sarajevo Serbs, whose resistance has emerged as the most serious potential danger to implementation of the peace accord forged last month in Dayton. But Sunday, Karadzic appeared to change his tune, indicating that he is prepared to accept "painful compromises" in the accord.
Karadzic's statements, carried by the Bosnian Serb news agency SRNA, came a day after he was summoned to a meeting with Milosevic, the powerful onetime mentor of the Bosnian Serbs who negotiated on their behalf in Dayton.