Assertive Swedes Play Tough Guy In Bosnia -- Most U.N. Troops Use Other Tactics

VARES, Bosnia - There's a new sheriff in town and he's Swedish.

Swedish soldiers on U.N. duty in the central Bosnian town of Vares are redrawing the rules of international peacekeeping by aggressively protecting civilians and property in a country wrecked by 18 months of civil war.

When Muslim forces entered the former Croat stronghold unopposed Thursday and began looting, the Swedes intervened.

Swedes halted car thefts, drove looters out of stores and threatened to shoot if Muslims harmed any of the civilians still in town.

"I think other countries will learn from the Nordic countries how to do U.N. business," said Colonel Ulf Hendricsson, commander of the U.N. Nordic battalion in central Bosnia.

In the days leading up to the Muslim advance, Vares was terrorized by Croat gunmen. These hardliners arrested most of the town's Muslim men and attacked women and children nightly. Murder, rape and looting became routine.

With too few men to patrol the whole town, the Swedes closely monitored Muslim prisoners held in two schools and gave refuge to terrified civilians.

"We told the Croats in the school if we heard any shooting, we would start shooting them," said Major Hakan Birger, a Swedish company commander based in Vares.

Croat forces eventually abandoned the school, and the Muslim prisoners escaped with their lives.

"The Swedes are great, they saved us," said one after they were freed.

Muslim women and children who reached the Swedish base were protected at an adjacent sawmill. Others camped next to Swedish armored vehicles on the main street, some for as long as five days.

In the chaotic 24-hour period between the Croat withdrawal from Vares and the entry of Muslim troops, Swedish soldiers led a column of displaced persons to their base.

Swedes also rescued two elderly women from a burning building and saved another who came under sniper fire in the town square.

Reporters covering the Bosnian civil war since its beginning say they seldom have seen U.N. officers act with such resolve.

Senior U.N. officials say any form of overt intervention in a three-way civil war is folly and that progress must come through negotiation, not force.

They worry that intervention may make the U.N. more regular targets of Bosnian factions bent on revenge.

"Our primary job is to escort humanitarian aid convoys, not to settle every scrap in a country consumed by civil war," said one British peacekeeper. "I admire the Swedish troops and their attitude, but they've only been in Bosnia for a few weeks. The question is whether their approach will work over the longer run."

U.N. troops routinely spend days negotiating with Bosnian factions for rights of passage for aid convoys.

Hendricsson has a different approach.

"I have come to checkpoints where the soldiers refuse to remove the mines blocking our way," he said. "I've told the soldiers if they don't move the mines we'll blow their heads off. We've always gotten through."