British troops get set to quit Bosnia

AFTER 15 years of continuous presence on the ground in the war-ravaged mountains and cities of Bosnia, the British Army is leaving.

Adam Ingram, the armed forces minister, confirmed yesterday that Britain will withdraw its more than 600 remaining troops from Bosnia as concerns about security in the Balkan state ease.

Britain is scaling back its military commitments elsewhere to concentrate on Iraq and Afghanistan, where it now has 12,600 troops.

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Mr Ingram said the withdrawal of troops from Bosnia followed a European Union decision to cut its 6,000 strong peacekeeping force there to 2,500 in June. A skeleton crew of British staff officers would remain at Sarajevo headquarters and a small number of troops would stay to dismantle a base at Banja Luka, he said.

Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, said this week that EU officials ultimately want to convert the military presence into a civilian force for lighter police-style tasks.

The UK is sending an additional 1,400 troops to Afghanistan, which will eventually take the force there to 7,700.

The Conservatives said the troop withdrawal from Bosnia was a sign that British forces were overstretched. "It's clear that as overstretch hits hard, the government is having to scratch around to find anywhere from which it can withdraw troops to then send to Afghanistan," said Liam Fox, the Conservative shadow defence secretary.

British troops served in Bosnia both during and after the 1992-1995 war that tore apart the former Yugoslavia.

Units such as the Cheshire Regiment, the Devon and Dorsets and the Duke of Wellington's Regiment are just some of those that served in Bosnia.

Under the operational jargon, a serving battalion of British troops was known as "BritBat." Due to their no-nonsense approach to incoming fire from Serbs, Croats and Muslims alike, they garnered the nickname of "ShootBat".

Commanding officers such as the Cheshire regiment's Colonel Bob Stewart and General Rupert Smith became household names during the war.

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The withdrawal of the British troops will considerably reduce the efficacy of the EUFOR military mission, which is already widely regarded as operationally lacklustre.

One of the most embarrassing failures of the last 15 years was that of NATO troops, particularly the British and Americans, to apprehend the two most-wanted war-crimes suspects, the former Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadzic, and General Ratko Mladic.