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Mideast edition, Sunday, July 1, 2007

In its day, Tuzla Air Base was as central to the U.S. military effort in Bosnia as Bagram and Balad air bases now are to forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I can’t tell you how many Americans rotated through the place,” said the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Douglas L. McElhaney, “but there must have been thousands and thousands of them.”

But those days are long gone. And now, so too is that strategic air base from the U.S. inventory.

On Saturday, the United States transferred responsibility for the airfield to the Bosnians, though, technically, that happened three days earlier without a peep of publicity. The ceremonial return of what the U.S. Army referred to as Eagle Base was attended by U.S. and NATO representatives, as well as a host of dignitaries.

The Bosnian peacekeeping mission “has been a huge success,” McElhaney said in a phone interview Friday. Twelve years ago, McElhaney was a member of the U.S. Mission to NATO. “I didn’t think back in 1995 that we would have a new (Bosnian) military any time soon.”

There was good reason for skepticism, given the long history of ethnic and sectarian strife in the Balkans.

While figures vary, the death toll from the 1992-1995 Bosnian war is widely believed to be at least 100,000, according to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Some estimates, however, have run as high as 200,000.

The war officially ended on Dec. 14, 1995, with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in Paris.

Though frustrated by days of thick fog, the Air Force managed four days later to fly a few hundred paratroops of the 3rd Battalion, 325th Infantry Regiment into Tuzla Air Base from Vicenza, Italy. Their job was to relieve the U.N. Nordic forces that had secured the airfield for nearly two years.

Over the next few weeks, Mother Nature conspired against the peacekeepers as bad weather slowed the arrival of the 20,000-strong task force, whether by air or by land. But however they arrived, the airfield in Tuzla, which by then had been renamed Eagle Base, held great importance since it was the headquarters of the U.S.-led Implementation Force in northeastern Bosnia.

“For the foreseeable future, this will be headquarters for Task Force Eagle,” Maj. Garrie Dornan, an Army spokesman, said at the time. “This place suits our needs.”

And it would remain that way for some time to come.

While the number of troops in Bosnia would gradually decrease over time, the old Soviet MiG-21 base remained central to the overall U.S. and coalition effort. It was, after all, where the sector commander hung his Kevlar, where the best USO talent played, and where the U.S. military set the tone for the balance of the peacekeeping mission.

That tone changed in December 2004 when a European Union-led stabilization force took over the Bosnian peacekeeping mission from NATO. And it changed again this weekend when Bosnians took another step forward on the road to peace.


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