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Despite Others’ Mixed Marks, U.N. Commander Defends His Year in Bosnia : Peacekeeping: British Lt. Gen. Michael Rose is leaving his post. He insists neutrality has been right course.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A pregnant calm pervades this charred and rubble-strewn city as Sarajevans trudge through a third bone-chilling winter of isolation and as British Lt. Gen. Michael Rose ends his controversial tenure as U.N. commander.

His year at the helm of the world body’s most thwarted peacekeeping effort has witnessed waves of tragedy and triumph. The decorated general has inspired reverence in some quarters for his help in halting some of the war’s worst bombardments--and contempt among those who feel he sacrificed their future for fleeting, symbolic success.

The 54-year-old veteran of the Falklands War and daring commando raids, who will leave his post today, says he is proud of his achievements, insisting that his adherence to strict neutrality has brought the Bosnian government and rebel Serbs to a juncture that could lead to settlement of their nearly 3-year-old war.

But hopeful words do little to muffle the reality of a bitter conflict--a fact he has faced throughout his term as commander of the 24,000 U.N. troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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Western diplomats and many Bosnian civilians credit Rose with personally orchestrating an end to the heavy artillery shelling of this once-serene capital. And his dogged insistence on serving as diplomat, mediator and arbitrator as well as peacekeeping commander helped solidify a Muslim-Croat reconciliation that has brought relative peace to central Bosnia.

Yet his high-profile year in arguably the most difficult role for any professional soldier also played a part in the decline of some of the Western World’s most vital institutions, like the 16-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization now all but banished from Bosnian duties.

A firmer line against the rebel Serbian gunmen who have savaged Bosnia since April, 1992, would have inflicted disaster upon his peacekeeping mission, Rose insisted last week.

“There has at times been serious danger we were going to be dragged into a more formal conflict. It would have been a catastrophe. . . . Death and devastation would have stalked the land,” the general replied when asked why he persistently rejected the use of NATO air power to carry out his mandate to protect civilians in U.N. “safe areas” such as Sarajevo.

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“A lot of siren voices were calling us to war,” he said.

As he turns over the Bosnia command to Maj. Gen. Rupert Smith, another Briton, Rose is confident that he leaves this country on a path toward peace. He denies that his evenhanded approach toward the rebels and the internationally recognized government served to legitimize the Serbian gunmen and to freeze their hold on seized territory.

And he dismissed suggestions that military intervention early in the conflict might have stemmed the worst fighting in Europe since World War II before it escalated and spread. The West was loath to undertake military action at the time, he said, adding that, to him, any speculation about what might have resulted if it had is “a matter of supreme indifference.”

A dedicated war hero virtually reared by the British army, Rose arrived late last January to take up the command post in Bosnia during one of the conflict’s more hopeless phases.

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Serbian gunmen loyal to rebel leader Radovan Karadzic had completely encircled this city and other enclaves, using thousands of tanks and heavy artillery pieces to drive away Muslims and Croats and seize their homes and land.

Upon his arrival, Rose proclaimed that he would push his peacekeeping role to the limit in pursuit of restoring normal life to suffering civilians.

When a shell landed in a crowded public market on Feb. 5, the bloodletting was so shocking--68 shoppers were killed and more than 100 injured--that NATO threatened to destroy the rebels’ artillery with concerted air strikes.

Rose deterred Western military powers from embarking on punitive bombing runs that might have led to their deeper involvement, proposing instead that the rebels be given 10 days to pull their guns and armor out of range of the densely populated capital.

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His “total exclusion zone” was never completely cleansed of Serbian heavy weapons or entirely free of hostile fire, but he deemed the Serbs in “effective compliance” with the no-arms zone. That allowed the rebels to escape NATO bombardment and preserve their weapons advantage.

The springtime cessation of shelling drew Sarajevans from their cellars, ending a two-year horror that Rose had described as a city of 380,000 “living like rats.”

Cafes sprang up on shell-pocked streets and sidewalks. A handful of restaurants and shops reopened. Tram service resumed, a few blocks at a time, along the length of this narrow riverfront city. People strolled in broad daylight, even occasionally braving Marshal Tito Boulevard, the thoroughfare notorious as “sniper alley” because of sharpshooters targeting pedestrians from the Serb-held southern side.

The capital’s daily death toll plummeted to a fraction of its siege level, yet sniping persisted, as did Sarajevans’ belief that their lives as inmates in a giant concentration camp had not really changed.

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Tentative peace hopes died when Serbian rebels turned their withdrawn Sarajevo artillery on the eastern town of Gorazde in April, when as many as 700 Bosnian civilians were killed in what was supposed to be another U.N.-protected safe area.

Gorazde, by the accounts of virtually all Western diplomats and aid workers deployed in Bosnia, was the turning point in Rose’s term as Bosnian commander.

While he sanctioned the first use of NATO air power against the Serbs for savaging Gorazde, his later recommendation that the advancing rebels be punished again was vetoed by the U.N. mission’s civilian chief, Yasushi Akashi, making it painfully clear to Rose that he had limited authority and little hope of conducting the mission his way.

Faced with an emboldened rebel army suddenly confident that NATO was a paper tiger, Rose shifted tactics. He gambled that if Serbian land grabs and government attempts at reclaiming territory were reprimanded with equal vigor, the Serbs would gain trust in the United Nations and negotiate a lasting solution.

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But the tactic only intensified the Serbs’ defiance of diplomatic ventures, and the general’s resort to token air strikes failed even to slow the rebel military advance. Security in Sarajevo eroded, and battles along the 1,000-mile confrontation line escalated.

In November, the Serbian rebels launched a counteroffensive against government troops who had broken out of the Bihac pocket in the northwest. The Bosnian Serbs were joined by Croatian Serb gunmen in ongoing attacks on trapped Muslims in that designated safe area.

“Pinprick” air strikes called to demonstrate Western pique at rebel intransigence revealed the increasingly toothless role NATO had taken. Serbs took hundreds of U.N. troops hostage as human shields against further air power; grounded the humanitarian airlift that had fed Sarajevo for 30 months, and threatened NATO aircraft with surface-to-air missiles.

A December peace mission by former President Jimmy Carter at the invitation of Karadzic produced a cease-fire meant to create a breathing space for another try at negotiations.

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But Serbian refusal to accept a territorial division worked out by a five-nation negotiating group, along with continued hostilities against the purported safe areas, weakened confidence that the four-month truce will even last until spring.

Rose leaves a tense but quiet Sarajevo insisting that the tools for restoring peace are in the combatants’ hands.

“But we need will to achieve peace,” Rose said of the increasingly polarized warring factions. “We cannot do it by compulsion.”

Indeed, many here fear that the break in shelling, the slowing of offensives and the paralyzed diplomatic effort are indicative less of impending peace than of the calm before a storm.

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