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The largest, most expensive U.N. peacekeeping mission ever is preparing to pack its bags with the job unfinished in Bosnia, a bitter pill on the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.

U.N. emergency aid saved countless people in Bosnia, but U.N. soldiers became hapless bystanders to siege warfare, massacres and expulsions of civilians as the world vacillated over whether to get tough or get out.After years of missed opportunities, the Western powers finally unleashed NATO bombers that cut the dominant Bosnian Serbs down to the size of their Muslim and Croat foes, promoting a cease-fire and talks on a territorial shareout.

U.N. soldiers, scorned by Bosnia's ethnic factions, are to be replaced by NATO troops to anchor an eventual peace pact - a humbling comedown for the peacekeeping profession as the United Nations observes its 50th birthday.

Analysts say the rude awakening in the Balkans, including a U.N. mission in Croatia trampled by government army offensives over truce lines to crush separatist Serbs, may curb peacekeeping initiatives for years to come.

"To call Bosnia the Waterloo of U.N. peacekeeping would be a bit exaggerated, but no doubt the cause of peacekeeping has been set back by Bosnia," Michael Williams, former chief spokesman of the U.N. Balkans mission, said.

Previous peacekeeping missions were sent into a country only after a peace deal was signed by factions committed to national unity. By contrast, Bosnia's war was cranking into high gear when the United Nations arrived in 1992. The Serbs were busy gobbling up much of the country, "cleansing" it of Muslims and Croats and establishing their own state.

The Security Council, haunted by headlines of slaughter and starvation in the heart of "postwar" Europe, passed reams of resolutions painting the Serbs as aggressors and approving "all necessary means" to rescue government enclaves.

The annual budget for U.N. troops in Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia topped $1.6 billion, and troop levels reached 30,000 in the Bosnia operation, including heavily armed rapid reaction units, and 14,000 in Croatia before a gradual withdrawal began this summer.

But the Big Powers in the Security Council were so riven by divergent strategic interests and domestic political concerns that they denied the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) the tools to implement council resolutions.

Britain and France shied from embroiling their UNPROFOR contingents in war with the Serbs and mired the mission in inertia. Russia blocked Western pressure to blast its fellow Orthodox Slav Serbs once and for all.

The United States kept lobbying for a U.N.-sanctioned NATO crackdown on the Serbs. But Washington had a credibility problem - it had no troops in UNPROFOR.

Bosnia's Muslim-led government grew embittered with what it considered U.N. appeasement of Serb aggression, while U.N. officials clung to the peacekeeping tradition of impartiality when dealing with rival factions, leaving UNPROFOR prey to Serb manipulation.

"It meant UNPROFOR ended up `pro-Serb' because the Serbs held 70 percent of the land, encircled safe areas and could shut down convoy routes and the Sarajevo airlift whenever they chose (in violation of signed agreements)," Williams said.

Bosnian authorities suspected the real U.N. agenda was to "contain" the war within Bosnia no matter who won it, although some critics felt UNPROFOR unwittingly prolonged the bloodshed by artificially sustaining Muslim enclaves.

UNPROFOR looked finished after letting the Serbs snatch back hundreds of heavy weapons from U.N. depots inside Sarajevo's safe zone and resume shelling the capital without incurring more than two pinprick NATO air raids.

But the Western powers underwent a sudden dramatic change of heart when the Serbs overran two eastern safe areas, expelling tens of thousands of Muslims and possibly killing several thousand from Srebrenica.

NATO threatened "disproportionate" strategic bombings against Serbs if other safe zones were attacked again, and Yasushi Akashi, the special U.N. envoy to former Yugoslavia, was deprived of his veto on air action.

When the Serbs mortared a Sarajevo marketplace in late August, slaughtering 37 people, UNPROFOR's feeble tweezers were cast aside for good and NATO applied the sledgehammer. Two weeks of strategic bombings across Bosnia hobbled the Serb war machine and Croat-Muslim alliance armies captured more than 1,500 square miles of territory in a few days.

Akashi stepped down as U.N. envoy but had no regrets. "I (still) think U.N. peacekeepers and mediators have to be impartial. If you lose (that), you become useless," he told reporters. "The party you bomb today you have to negotiate with tomorrow for a humanitarian convoy."