SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The European Union on Thursday began its biggest military operation, taking over NATO's peacekeeping mission in Bosnia with 7,000 troops.
The operation is a major step in the EU's drive to develop a military arm, an initiative launched after the bloc failed to halt the war that tore Bosnia-Herzegovina apart in the early 1990s.
The European Union flag replaced NATO's at the ceremony in Sarajevo, attended by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, as well as the three-member Bosnian presidency.
"This is a truly historic occasion," De Hoop Scheffer said.
A multinational, NATO-led force of 60,000 crossed the border of Bosnia in December 1995 to silence the guns of the three armies locked in Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II.
Bosnia's 1992-95 war involving its Muslim Bosnians, Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats killed 260,000 and forced half of the country's 4 million people to flee their homes. It ended with a U.S.-brokered peace agreement implemented by the alliance.
Over the years, the security situation improved enough to allow the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to decrease the number of troops to 7,000. Under NATO leadership, the country started slowly melding its three ethnically divided armed forces into one army.
NATO is handing EU forces a peaceful Bosnia with a multiethnic Defense Ministry and former enemies -- Muslim, Serbian and Croat soldiers -- obeying a joint command.