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Clinton Calls Bosnia Vote a 'Remarkable' Act

September 16, 1996|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Using nearly identical words, President Clinton and his top foreign policy strategists Sunday hailed Bosnia's first postwar elections as a "remarkable" achievement that vindicated the U.S. refusal to delay the voting in the face of widespread irregularities.

Officials said that Saturday's relatively peaceful voting clears the way for the withdrawal of most U.S. peacekeeping troops from Bosnia-Herzegovina by the end of the year.

They added, however, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization may decide this fall to create a follow-up force that could keep some U.S. troops in the Balkans for many more months.

Clinton emphasized the positive, glossing over evidence that the expected winners in the country's ethnically divided constituencies are determined to harden the divisions regardless of the veneer of national unity required by last year's Dayton, Ohio, peace accord.

"By voting, the Bosnian people gave life to the institutions of national government--a presidency, a parliament, a constitutional court, key government agencies," Clinton told reporters as he left the White House for a campaign trip. "These institutions can bring the country together instead of driving it apart. Now we have to get them up and running and help the Bosnian people in the hard work of building a unified, democratic and peaceful Bosnia."

With voters' freedom of movement severely restricted, opposition candidates denied access to television air time and election regulations manipulated by ethnic nationalists, many critics had called for postponement of the balloting. The Clinton administration steadfastly rejected that advice, arguing that conditions were unlikely to be better in six or 12 months.

Clinton also clearly wanted to adhere to the timetable fixed at the Dayton talks because it offered the promise of an eventual end to U.S. participation in volatile Balkan politics.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), on the NBC-TV program "Meet the Press," said it now seems certain that U.S. forces will have to remain in Bosnia after the current mission ends Dec. 20.

"I think the administration would be much more honest and candid if it just said that, and then planned accordingly," Gingrich said.

Administration officials now concede that the United States has little choice but to remain involved in Bosnia for the indefinite future, preferably with civilian experts and diplomats but with troops if the security situation deteriorates.

"There clearly will have to be some continued international presence in Bosnia," said Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on the same NBC program.

"We're not just going to let it fall off the cliff."

But she said the administration wants to limit that assistance to economic help, technical aid to local police forces and monitoring of the human rights situation rather than dispatching more troops.

Nevertheless, the United States and its allies plan to talk about a security force during a series of meetings starting later this month. White House officials said that a new force may be unnecessary if the Bosnian parliament elected Saturday convenes on time and functions effectively. But if the Bosnian institutions falter, the officials added, a new NATO force is virtually inevitable.

The subject is expected to dominate a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Bergen, Norway, on Sept. 25 and 26.

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