World

Raising the stakes

Canada deepens its involvement in the Yugoslav war

Tom Fennell May 10 1999
World

Raising the stakes

Canada deepens its involvement in the Yugoslav war

Tom Fennell May 10 1999

Raising the stakes

Canada deepens its involvement in the Yugoslav war

World

Tom Fennell

Capt. Denis O’Reilly has been going through intense training for months. Finally, orders came last week that replaced the boredom of endless drills with nervous anticipation: nearly 800 peacekeepers from the Edmonton Garrison would be sent to Macedonia, where they could find themselves in the thick of the battle over Yugoslavia’s neighbouring Kosovo province. While other soldiers practised clearing mines and tossing grenades, O’Reilly, an aircraft commander with 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, began checking every nut and bolt on the eight Griffon helicopters going to Macedonia. “This is what I've trained for,” said O’Reilly, 29. “To protect the innocent.”

Many of the soldiers at the Edmonton base have some heart-tugging personal business to attend to before they go. Sgt. Colin Dunn, 33, is still trying to explain to his four-yearold daughter, Alexis, the elder of his two girls, why he will not be around for the next six months. “I’ve tried to tell her Daddy’s going away for quite a few sleeps,” said Dunn, one of 200 soldiers from Lord Strathcona’s Horse Regiment who will be going to Macedonia. Dunn, who is helping to get 17 Coyote armoured vehicles ready for the trip, is a veteran of two peacekeeping tours in Bosnia. This time, he knows his duties may involve combat. “I’m kind of resigned to the fact,” said Dunn, bouncing 15-month-old Blaire on his knee. “Whatever happens, happens.”

Alexis and Blaires father may be in for a long stay in the Balkans as Canadas role in the region continues to expand. Six more CF-18 Hornet fighter-bombers were set to arrive this week in Aviano, Italy, the main base for NATO raids on Yugoslavia, where they will join 12 other CF-18s. At the same time, the Canadian destroyer HMCS Athabaskan was heading a NATO task force in the North Adantic, where its crew of 255 was awaiting orders from NATO to lead a possible oil blockade of ports in Montenegro, Yugoslavia’s only access to the ocean.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien insisted that

Canada was not committing troops to a potential ground war in Kosovo. Any such move, Chrétien promised, would be debated in Parliament first. Even so, Canadian military strategists did not expect the 800 troops to have an easy time once they arrive on the scene in June. If Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is bombed into accepting a peace deal, keeping that peace will be a dangerous job. And there is a dawning realization that any peacekeeping operation in Kosovo will be a drawn-out mission. Asked if Canadian peacekeepers could end up serving in Kosovo as long as they did keeping apart Greeks and Turks on Cyprus, a mission that lasted 29 years, Brig.-Gen. Dave Jurkowski shrugged: “Who knows? I don’t have a crystal ball.”

U.S. President Bill Clinton also warned of a protracted war. He ordered the call-up of 30,000 reserve troops and asked Congress to quickly authorize $6 billion in emergency funding to cover the rising cost of the conflict. Even as he spoke, refugees continued to flood into Macedonia from Kosovo. As a result of the horrendous overcrowding in the Macedonian refugee

camps, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata asked Canada to again open its doors to Kosovars. Immigration Minister Lucienne Robillard immediately agreed and announced that Canada would welcome up to 5,000 refugees over the next year, with several hundred expected as early as this week.

Meanwhile, there was one possible sign that Milosevic was softening his hardline anti-NATO stance. On Saturday, he agreed to Western demands to release three American soldiers captured on March 31 while on a patrol along the YugoslavMacedonian border. The surprise development came after U.S. civil rights activist Jesse Jackson met first with the soldiers and then with Milosevic to urge their release. The Yugoslav leader promised to free the Americans on Sunday. (That piece of encouraging news came only hours after an apparently errant NATO missile struck a civilian bus on a bridge inside Kosovo, slicing it in two and killing at least two dozen people aboard, according to Western and Yugoslav reports.)

When they arrive in Macedonia, the Edmonton Garrison soldiers will be integrated into a British brigade. Their first task will be to assist the thousands of Kosovo refugees living in squalid conditions along Yugoslavia’s border. But the soldiers are also taking on a more critical role: doing reconnaissance missions with the aid of the eight-wheeled Coyote and its high-tech surveillance system. In effect, they will become the eyes and ears of the British brigade. In the past, said Col. Walter Natynczyk, a veteran of peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Cyprus, Canadian peacekeepers often had to venture within range of sniper fire or near minefields to gather essential information. “With the Coyote,” he said, “we can stand off five kilometres.”

The soldiers will also be using new helicopters and troop carriers, but the state of their equipment still triggered a row in Parliament. The Reform party targeted the usefulness of the Coyote, as well as questioning the troops’ exact role in the conflict. “The Liberals are the guys that have been gutting the military for 30 years,” said Reform MP Bob Mills. “But they still want to take part because it’s rather macho.” Some military experts shared the concern about the Coyote, a lightarmoured vehicle with machine-guns and grenade launchers.

Retired major-general Brian Vernon said it is too light to withstand heavy fire. “To put our people in Coyotes into a slugging contest,” said Vernon, “would be almost criminal negligence.”

The navy could also be drawn into the fight if NATO proceeds with its plan to blockade Montenegro’s ports. Several NATO countries, including France and Greece, were deeply concerned that stopping ships on the high seas, particularly Russian vessels,

could lead to a widening of the war. If NATO does move ahead, the task of leading the blockade would fall to Commodore David Morse on the Athabaskan, which, on April 16, took over the rotating command of NATO s Standing Naval Force Atlantic. Primarily designed for anti-submarine warfare, the 30-year-old Iroquois-class destroyer was updated in the early 1990s with a missile system and state-of-the-art radar and electronics.

While NATO hesitates over the blockade, there is no second-guessing at Aviano. Col. Dwight Davies, commander of the almost 250 Canadians at the base, told Macleans he wants some of the more than 30 Canadian pilots who are flying out of Aviano to go home for a break. At the same time, he has almost 30 pilots waiting in Canada for a chance to replace them. “These guys have spent 10 to 20 years training for this very mission,” said Davies, “and damn, they are ready for this.”

Diplomats on a number of fronts were doing their best to send the flyers home. As part of that initiative, Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy flew to Moscow, where he held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Axworthy said he hoped Milosevic could be convinced to withdraw his troops from Kosovo and allow an international force, including Russian soldiers, to enforce a peace deal. But there was still little sign that Milosevic was willing to accept anything more than a force without weapons. That became clear after he abruptly fired Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic, a former opposition leader, who said his country was ready to allow armed UN and NATO soldiers to police a peace agreement.

As Dunn prepared to depart with the troops, his wife, Pascale, still hoped that the diplomatic effort would pay off. To help make it easier on her family when he is away, Pascale plans to tape-record Dunn reading some stories to Alexis. “It will be like a little piece of him here,” she said. That is all they will have while he undertakes what will surely be one of Canadas most dangerous peacekeeping missions.

With

John Geddes

and

Luke Fisher

in Ottawa and

Davis Sheremata

in Edmonton