The commander of U.S. forces in Bosnia said Thursday that leaders of all three warring parties in the American sector of operations have begun taking steps to abide by the terms of the Balkan peace accord.
"They not only pledged their support, but reported a variety of measures they were taking, such as mine clearing and starting to pull back forces well ahead of any deadline," Maj. Gen William L. Nash said.
Nash was speaking at his first news conference since arriving here Monday. "In all cases, they were . . . aware of the peace accord," he said.
Nash's comments, coupled with reports that Croatian, Muslim and Bosnian Serb units are beginning to pull back from current cease-fire lines elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina, constitute the latest in a series of hopeful indicators that initial phases of the peace implementation plan can move forward without resistance.
In Washington, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry called the developments "encouraging" and said that peace in Bosnia was becoming "an emerging reality."
U.S. Adm. Leighton W. Smith, commander of the NATO-led force that eventually will include 60,000 personnel, was also upbeat after meeting in Sarajevo with Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic. "It's obviously just a start, but we are very, very pleased by the way things are going," he told reporters.
Still, Perry acknowledged, "this peace is young and it is fragile, so we have to consider the challenges still ahead of us."
There have been reports of Muslim units in the especially volatile Posavina Corridor in northeastern Bosnia threatening to resume fighting. But there was no sign of any weakening of resolve by the Muslim-led Bosnian government to proceed with the terms of the peace pact.
Nash said he visited Serb-held territory on Wednesday, even stopping there for lunch.
He said leaders of the formerly warring factions provided him with preliminary information about the locations of land mines and pledged to identify all the minefields in the area. Many roads across the confrontation line have already been cleared of mines, he reported.
So far, about 700 U.S. soldiers have landed at the Tuzla air base on flights from Germany and Italy.
The bulk of the 20,000 U.S. soldiers destined for the region, however, are scheduled to deploy by land from Germany, and for this to happen, the Army must build a pontoon bridge over the Sava River, which divides Croatia and northern Bosnia.
Nash said he expected the bridge to be built next week, but he would not specify a day because it could be delayed by bad weather.
"I'm not going to nail the date down," he said. "If it's a snowy and icy day, I'm not going to cross the river that day. We're going to come across in a measured, deliberate manner."
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, speaking in Washington, said the delay has reportedly been caused by the need to firm up the riverbanks before the bridge could be built.
But Shalikashvili insisted that "our movement plans into the region are essentially on track."
He said so far there have been about 350 sorties by airlift aircraft, while 44 trains have arrived and unloaded in the Balkan theater. An additional 33 trains are en route.
He reported that about 3,800 U.S. troops were in Italy and Hungary, 1,450 in Bosnia and 850 in Croatia.
Once the bridge is built, the 1st Armored Division will begin deploying in northeastern Bosnia.
Both Shalikashvili and Perry asserted that the push toward the deployment's big "milestones" remain on track, and they predicted that the entire 20,000-member U.S. force will be in Bosnia within six to eight weeks of the Dec. 14 signing of the peace pact.
The two stressed that they had informed Nash and U.S. Army Gen. George A. Joulwan, the supreme commander for the overall allied Bosnia mission, repeatedly that they did not want them to take shortcuts to meet a deadline.
"I consider much more important now that those deployments are conducted safely," Shalikashvili said. "We understood from the beginning what winter operations would be like. We are bringing in forces at the rate we expected."
In another sign of easing political tensions, Serbia and Croatia restored civilian telephone service between the two countries for the first time in more than four years.
While circuits were overloaded most of the day Thursday, in many parts of both countries, relatives cut off by war managed to hear each other for the first time in years.
"I am overjoyed today," said a 59-year-old woman in Zagreb, Croatia, who identified herself only as Ivana, her voice still trembling with excitement. "We started dialing at 7 a.m. this morning and finally got through at 11. My husband and I were fighting over the receiver here in Zagreb, and our son was jumping and screaming at the other end in Belgrade."
She explained that, for four years, her only contact with her son had been through a sister in Switzerland who passed messages between parents and child.
In Serbia, there was more frustration than long-distance telephoning Thursday because the rush of people dialing Croatia overwhelmed the few circuits available, and many people did not know that Croatian area codes and some individual numbers had changed.
Independent Belgrade television Studio B reported that, due to heavy demand, the number of circuits to Croatia will soon be increased.
Isolated from friends and family in Croatia for years, many Belgrade residents said they spent hours dialing just to hear with their own ears that the lines were back up.
"Everybody is trying," said Milca Gojkovic, 56, a Belgrade lawyer who had no luck getting through to her twin brother, who lives in Rijeka, a Croatian coastal city. "People can't believe it is true."
Paddock reported from Tuzla and Pine from Washington. Times staff writers Tyler Marshall in Zagreb and Dean E. Murphy in Belgrade contributed to this report.