BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Union took on its biggest military mission yesterday, replacing NATO in charge of 7,000 peacekeeping troops in Bosnia.
The E.U.'s blue and gold flag was raised at a low-key ceremony at Camp Butmir just outside Sarajevo led by British bandsmen, as NATO officials looked on benignly.
The new force, called Eufor, steps into the shoes of NATO's departing Stabilization Force, SFOR. But nine years after the end of the war in which 200,000 people were killed, hostilities have cooled and the force is unlikely to face much danger. Eighty per cent of soldiers in the new force are there already under SFOR command. They simply swapped insignia on their caps, uniforms, and vehicles.
The force is drawn from 32 countries, including non-E.U. states such as Canada and even Chile. Britain heads the list with a contingent of 950 men, mostly Grenadier Guards. About 1,000 American troops are pulling out, leaving their sector to a Finnish-led group.
The transfer marks Europe's emergence as the paramount military power in a region where it failed so disastrously a decade ago. Both Washington and Sarajevo have resisted the shift to E.U. control until now, suspecting that Brussels wanted to flex its military muscles "on the cheap" for prestige reasons.
But Britain has persuaded President Bush's administration that Europe is at last ready to handle the task.
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO's secretary-general, said that Bosnia had been reborn since suffering the worst atrocities in Europe since the Nazi era during the three-way civil war between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims.
Although Bosnia is calm, diplomats fear that the uneasy settlement could unravel if Serb strongmen sense that E.U.-led forces lack the stomach for a fight. British Major-General David Leakey, the force commander, said the country remained dangerous.
"Bosnia is still recovering from a very bloody war," he said. "The ethnic tensions which started that war are still here. He said that Eufor would enjoy the same "robust" mandate as NATO.
The force is backed by the full might of American NATO forces in case the mission spins out of control. Bosnia is the E.U.'s third military task since the launch of its 60,000-man Rapid Reaction Force, on paper, four years ago. It has carried out light duties in Macedonia and sent a French-led operation to restore order in the Congo.
The E.U. now has a military staff headquarters in Brussels with an intelligence cell and a 24-hour crisis center.
The E.U. agreed last month on plans for two 1,500-man battle groups ready "with their boots on" for action within 15 days. The Bosnia mission will pick up where NATO left off in the hunt for indicted war criminals, notably the Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. While the British have been zealous in hunting down suspects in their zones, the French have allowed their sector to become a haven.
Carla del Ponte, the chief United Nations war crimes prosecutor, called on the E.U. mission to do a better job than NATO. "I am very disappointed with NATO's action over war criminals," she said. "It has not arrested anyone for a year-and-a-half despite the information we have provided. I have new hope with this European force."
She accused the Serb military of shielding Mladic across the border.
"He is not hiding in a hole like Saddam Hussein but in military apartments."