Refurbishing Tuzla airfield first step in peace mission

The Associated Press

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina A huge U.S. transport plane brought American troops to this tattered airfield yesterday to start the first concrete preparations for the NATO peace mission: lighting the runway and turning on the radar.

Twelve Air Force and Army officers were on board the camouflaged C-130 Hercules along with equipment to refurbish the 40-year-old airfield before 20,000 U.S. troops start arriving later this month.

They'll start the first work reconstruction and repairs needed to station 60,000 NATO troops who will arrive in the region after Serb, Croatian and Muslim leaders sign a peace treaty in Paris Dec. 14.

To the north, 45 NATO staff officers and soldiers nearly half of them Americans flew into the Croatian capital Zagreb in a heavy snowfall to set up NATO's headquarters for the peace mission.

The office is to be run by U.S. Adm. Leighton Smith, commander of NATO's southern European forces, who is expected to arrive next week.

In other developments yesterday:

A British U.N. peacekeeper said he witnessed Bosnian Croat police torching two villages in an area in central Bosnia that is to be handed over to the Serbs under the Dayton agreement.

Capt. Colin Armstrong-Bell, a spokesman for the British battalion, said he saw the Croats looting and burning homes as he drove through the villages of Podbrdo and Bravnici on Tuesday.

The United Nations condemned the incident, saying it threatened to ''inflame passions as we begin implementing a peace process.''

In Bonn, Germany's parliament approved sending 4,000 soldiers to join the NATO mission. It will be Germany's largest military deployment since World War II and its first to the Balkans since the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia.

Canadian Defense Minister David Collenette announced Canada will provide 1,000 troops to the NATO mission. Canada has supplied troops to the U.N. peacekeeping operation for the last 3 years.

Once the biggest military air base in former Yugoslavia, the Tuzla airfield just outside this mining town has taken a beating during 31/2 years of war most of the time targeted by Serb gunners on adjacent hills.

The control tower was stripped of all radar and communications equipment by Yugoslav forces. Its 2,000-yard main runway had been able only to handle helicopters before the U.N. began to use it for its peacekeeping operations. Even now, barely half of its runway lights work. Countless mines remain buried along its roads and runways. Still, the Americans had expected worse.

''The (Tuzla) airfield is actually in remarkably good condition. We're just going to add a little bit to it in preparation for bringing in, obviously, some more airplanes,'' said Air Force Col. Neal Patton, vice commander of the 16th Air Force based at Aviano, Italy.

The Air Force will equip the tower with standard radio equipment and fix the runway lights. More sophisticated landing instruments will come later.

U.S. military officials in Washington said a ''significant surge'' of U.S. troops will fly to Tuzla within the first hours of the treaty signing, and the rest will follow by road and rail.

The American troops code-named Task Force Eagle will patrol northeastern Bosnia. French forces will be in the south and British the west, with soldiers from two dozen other countries scattered among all of them.

U.S. military planners have not said yet whether they will base their whole operation at the Tuzla air field. Several teams have been scouting northeastern Bosnia in the past two weeks looking at other places to base troops and weapons.

There are now 30 U.S. military personnel in Bosnia with the NATO mission, some from the 1st Armored Division and others from the 86th Airlift Wing. The C-130 that landed in Tuzla was guarded by a NATO fighter jet flying high overhead.

Patton eventually will command 300 U.S. Air Force personnel who will refit the air base in Tuzla and control the movement of aircraft, expected to reach 20 to 30 flights a day.

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