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EU takes over Bosnia peacekeeping
Updated: 2004-12-02 00:01

The European Union began its biggest-ever military operation Thursday, formally taking over NATO's peacekeeping mission in Bosnia with 7,000 troops.

German Army private Tulenkow, member of peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, gets the new EIFOR sign attached to his uniform sleeve by an officer at the German military base Rajlovac near Sarajevo, on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2004.[AP]
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 apart in the early 1990s. 

The European Union flag replaced NATO's at the transfer ceremony in Sarajevo, attended by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and the Secretary General of the Council of the European Union, Javier Solana, as well as the Bosnian three-member presidency.

"This is a truly historic occasion," said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. "This is a watershed in Bosnia-Herzegovina's development and proof of the developing cooperation between NATO and the European Union."

"The progress Bosnia-Herzegovina has made was unimaginable in the earlier 1990s," he said.

A 60,000 troops strong, multinational NATO-led force crossed the border of wartorn 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 between its Muslim Bosnians, Orthodox Serbs and 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, which the alliance implemented without any combat casualties.

The troops separated the three ethnic armies, pushed them back to their barracks and disarmed them. The peace allowed diplomats to start rebuilding Bosnia's state institutions.

Over the years, the security situation improved enough to allow NATO to decrease the number of troops to the current level of 7,000. Under NATO leadership, the country started slowly melting its three ethnically divided armed forces into one army to apply for NATO membership.

NATO is handing EU forces a peaceful Bosnia with a multiethnic Defense Ministry and former enemies Bosniak, Serb and Croat soldiers obeying to a joint command.

Although still wearing different insignia on their uniforms, Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats stood shoulder to shoulder under one flag in the honor guard at Thursday's ceremony.

Borislav Paravac, chairman of the Bosnian presidency, thanked NATO and paid tribute to peacekeepers killed while serving in Bosnia.

Paravac said that the EU takeover is "a major step toward sustainable peace and European integration."

"All this is part of a journey with only one destination institutions of the European Union," Solana told the ceremony. "The people of Bosnia do not deserve anything less than that."

The Alliance will keep a headquarters in Sarajevo to help finish Bosnia's military reforms and hunt war-crimes suspects still at large.

"NATO's Bosnia mission has been one of the Alliance's greatest successes in its 55-year history," U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns in Brussels said.

Dubbed EUFOR, the EU peacekeeping force will monitor the peace with a 7,000-strong force.

British Maj. Gen. David Leakey, the commander of EUFOR, told reporters last week his force had a mandate as strong as its predecessor.

The United States also plans to keep about 150 of its own troops in the country.

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