U.S. troops marked the end of their nine-year peacekeeping role in Bosnia on Wednesday as NATO prepared to hand over the task to the European Union in December.
A small number of U.S. troops will stay in Bosnia to hunt war crimes suspects and help the country reform its military.
“This ceremony officially marks mission complete and mission accomplished,” Gen. B.B. Bell, commander of U.S. Army Europe, said in a ceremony at Eagle Base in Tuzla, where most of the U.S. troops in Bosnia have been based.
U.S. troops have “honorably served as part of a NATO coalition of over 40 nations dedicated to ensuring that the people of this country can move ahead from a war-torn country to a peaceful and promising future,” Bell said.
More than 60,000 NATO-led troops from more than 40 countries were deployed to Bosnia in late 1995 to enforce the Dayton peace agreement, which ended the 3½-year war among the country’s Serbs, Muslims and Croats, in which 260,000 people were killed and 1.8 million others became refugees.
The security situation has improved over the years, allowing NATO to decrease the number of troops to 7,000.
NATO will be handing over the peacekeeping mission to the European Union on Dec. 2, which means a withdrawal of most of the 700 U.S. troops who currently serve in Bosnia. They will be replaced by EU personnel, with the biggest contingent coming from Finland.
Hunting Mladic and Karadzic
Even though NATO is handing over peacekeeping duties, it will leave some units behind to help local authorities adopt defense reforms and hunt down war crimes suspects. About 150 U.S. troops will stay in Eagle Base to focus on those tasks.
Bosnia’s two most wanted fugitive suspects are wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his top general, Ratko Mladic, both of whom were charged with genocide and crimes against humanity nine years ago.
“That’s one of the primary reasons that I am leaving 150 soldiers here,” said Brig. Gen. Timothy J. Wright, commander of the U.S. troops in Bosnia.
“Those are the two guys that we want to go get: Mladic and Karadzic,” he said.
NATO’s peacekeeping mission in Bosnia has been out of the spotlight in recent years, since it managed to end the hostilities and maintain peace without any combat casualties.
The European Union Force, known as EUFOR, will keep 7,000 troops in Bosnia. About 80 percent of the current force will merely change commanders and put EU insignia on their shoulders.
It will be the EU’s biggest military operation yet.