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U.S. Diplomat in Bosnia Delays Part of Election

August 28, 1996|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Conceding that "widespread abuse" has damaged the run-up to Bosnia's first postwar elections, the U.S. diplomat in charge of the vote called off municipal balloting on Tuesday and raised the possibility of an extended stay for NATO peacekeeping troops.

Bosnian Serb leaders, who have been the most keen on elections and have been accused of the most egregious abuses, blasted the delay as a "shameful act" and vowed to hold their own municipal contests.

Ambassador Robert H. Frowick, who heads the international mission charged with supervising the elections, ordered postponement of voting in 109 municipalities in response to efforts by the Bosnian Serbs to fraudulently create Serbian majorities in cities they seized during the war and emptied of Muslims through massacre and intimidation.

National elections to choose a three-headed presidency and parliamentary bodies--a cornerstone of the U.S.-brokered peace agreement that ended the war in December--will not be delayed and will occur on schedule Sept. 14, Frowick said.

U.S. officials in Washington--who had insisted that elections go ahead despite extensive reports of coercion, harassment and a generally hostile and undemocratic climate--supported Frowick's decision but not his timetable. It could put off municipal voting until next spring.

"We are trying to do too much in too short a time frame," Frowick said in an interview. "We've overloaded the circuits, [and] for the sake of integrity, we've got to do something about it."

He and other officials said they could separate municipal voting from the other races because the effect of bad-faith registrations will be diluted in the larger, nationwide voting pool. Officials rejected the targeted registration but found credible the prospect that Bosnian Serbs might eventually settle in Serb-controlled areas and decided they should be allowed to vote there in the national contests.

Still, Frowick's announcement raised questions about the entire electoral process, analysts said, and unleashed a host of unknowns concerning who will organize, supervise and provide security for a rescheduled vote.

The mandate governing most of the international bodies involved in the September elections expires soon thereafter; NATO's mission is supposed to end Dec. 20. To Washington's chagrin, Frowick said at a news conference that he believed "some kind of international military force" must remain for the later elections, which he thought could not be held until April or May.

The prospect of extending an international presence that far into next year alarmed Clinton administration officials, who have promised the public that American troops will leave Bosnia-Herzegovina by year's end. Frowick, speaking later in the day to three U.S. reporters--after he clearly had been called by Washington--said he had changed his mind and thought the new elections could be held sooner.

One senior U.S. official in Washington said they could happen as early as December--despite Bosnian winters so harsh they stymied NATO last December, slowing its snowbound deployment to a crawl.

Also in Washington, the administration's point man on Bosnia, Assistant Secretary of State John Kornblum, endorsed the municipal delay but disputed Frowick's conclusion that peacekeepers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization must remain in Bosnia until after local elections.

The higher-level elections should create new government institutions that can keep order in the absence of NATO-led forces, he said. The security situation will be reassessed after the first round of voting, Kornblum added, but postponement of the municipal elections "will not be a defining factor" in the determination of when to withdraw peacekeepers.

Frowick's decision defused one crisis--with Bosnian Muslim leaders, who threatened a boycott if Serbian voter manipulation was allowed to stand--but created another, with Bosnian Serbs who accused the body Frowick represents, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of siding with Muslims in an "undemocratic" move.

Triggering the controversy that led to Tuesday's announcement was a peculiar election rule permitting Bosnian voters to cast ballots in cities where they "intended" to live. It was aimed at giving the displaced a chance to vote; in fact, Bosnian Serbs used it to formalize gains made by ethnic expulsions.

Often through coercion, Bosnian Serb leaders registered tens of thousands of their supporters in cities they had never set foot in--to make Serbian cities out of formerly Muslim ones and consolidate the ethnic divides that the Dayton, Ohio, accord was supposed to erase.

The town of Srebrenica, for example, which fell to the Bosnian Serb army last year--after which thousands of the town's men disappeared, apparently killed--suddenly had a Serbian electorate more than 10 times the size of its prewar Serbian population.

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