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Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 10:40 GMT
Commander in Bosnia mission impossible
Lt. Col. Jonathon Riley
Commander in the eye of the storm
Seven years ago, peacekeepers from the Royal Welch Fusiliers were attacked by Bosnian Serb forces. That they returned safe, owes much to their commander. BBC Wales News Online's Gillian Sandford reports.

In early June 1995, then Prime Minister John Major picked up the phone and made an extraordinary call.

He was ringing the commander of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who was in a bunker under heavy shellfire in a Bosnian town being attacked by the Serbs.

The unorthodox commander - a mere lieutenant colonel - later said: "I thought, either I can behave like a typical army officer, or I can tell him the truth."

Mr Major asked how things were and the officer decided to tell him exactly what was going on.

Former Prime Minister John Major
John Major asked what was going on

So he said: "Thirty three of my men have been taken hostage. A hundred are in a hide.

"There are shells falling all around. No one can get to us and we can't get to anybody. But every man here knows his duty, and by heavens they will do it."

For his leadership and command of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in Bosnia, then-Lieutenant Colonel Jonathon Riley - now a brigadier - was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

But at the time, the UN headquarters in Sarajevo thought him a nuisance, even unhinged.

"We had more trouble from one lieutenant colonel than all the rest of them put together," said one of the UN British staff.

A team of SAS soldiers was even sent into the enclave to check up on him. But they told the UN command he was perfectly sane.

The decision to send 300 Welsh solders to Gorazde as UN peacekeepers left them stranded in an enclave totally surrounded by Serb forces.

Former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd
"I was very worried about those Welshman"

When the Serbs attacked - something Col Riley had predicted - the three-week assault exposed the vulnerability of the Welsh soldiers.

There was no secure route for the resupply of food, fuel or ammunition and no way out.

The peacekeepers' mandate was to "deter attacks" on Gorazde - a Muslim enclave, which the UN had declared to be a "Safe Area".

But the fusiliers did not have the manpower, the firepower, or an unambiguous mandate to defend the town fully.

A later UN assessment calculated that to defend Gorazde effectively, a division (nine battalions) would be needed - not less than one battalion.

'Accident waiting to happen'

"It was a deployment verging on the criminally negligent," one leading British general was later to admit.

"It was an accident waiting to happen" said another.

During his command in Gorazde, Col Riley broke with protocol repeatedly to lobby politicians and international decision-makers.

He wanted to ensure that the dangers that the Welsh Fusiliers faced were fully understood.

In later comments, politicians accepted that the fusiliers were highly exposed.

"I was very worried about those Welshmen," then-Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd was later to admit.

"They could have come back in body bags," one member of the Commons select committee said.

That the battalion came home safely, with not a single life lost, is a credit to Col Riley's command.

Bomb Shelters

Col Riley ordered his soldiers to devise and prepare bomb shelters to withstand attack, because he believed an assault would take place.

He also sent a substantial part of his battalion to a safe area in the hills just before the attack.

They would be out of range of shells and could more easily be evacuated by air, if London chose.

Fusiliers who were Serb hostages after their release
Col Riley sent a fax to the family of every hostage

And to assuage the anxieties of families of the 33 soldiers whom the Serbs had taken hostage, Col Riley personally faxed a message to each of them.

Despite the pressures on him, he maintained good relations with Serbian and Muslim military commanders.

Both the Serb liaison officer Brane Suka, and the Brigadier Hamid Bahto, in charge of Bosnian forces in Gorazde, have journeyed across Bosnia to meet him now the war is over.

"He was a good commander and he tried to keep us as informed as he could about what was going on - although he didn't know very much himself," says former Corporal Dave Vaatstra.

Vaastra - formerly in the Royal Welch Fusiliers is the Cardiff-based presenter of a BBC documentary on the deployment.

Gorazde: The Peacekeepers' Tale. Thursday 5 December, at 2000 GMT on BBC Radio Four.

See also:

27 Oct 01 | N Ireland
02 Sep 00 | Wales
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