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U.S. Prepares to Extend Use of Troops in Bosnia

Military: Criticism expected from GOP lawmakers who say president pledged to end deployment after one year.

November 15, 1996|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — After months of avoiding a firm commitment, the Clinton administration has signaled its readiness to keep troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina for a second year, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said Thursday.

Solana, meeting with senior administration officials and congressional leaders, said he came away from a session with Vice President Al Gore convinced that U.S. forces would be part of a new, North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led military force in the Balkans.

The multinational force will attempt to preserve the unsteady peace that has existed in the region since the peace accords brokered in Dayton, Ohio, a year ago.

Asked if Gore had "signaled" American participation, Solana responded: "Yes, let's leave it at signaling."

He made his comments at a breakfast meeting with a group of reporters.

An administration official said only that "the United States is carefully moving toward a presidential decision on the issue."

White House officials said President Clinton was scheduled to review U.S. participation with senior security advisors Thursday evening and would make a formal statement today.

"He's going to sleep on it and make his decision in the morning," one official said.

Solana said he had called a meeting of the 16 NATO ambassadors in Brussels for Monday to agree on the new force. With the alliance only capable of acting by consensus, he clearly expects U.S. consent.

"I'm optimistic that the United States will continue to be involved and with troops on the ground," Solana said. He added that 13 of 16 NATO members have said they favor a slightly reduced follow-on force, while Denmark and the Netherlands have argued for a larger presence.

U.S. participation has been seen as a crucial prerequisite for any NATO-led follow-on force in the Balkans.

Even so, Clinton is expected to draw fire from Republican lawmakers who have insisted that he led them to believe last December that the Bosnia deployment would last just one year. In part because of this sensitivity, Clinton conspicuously avoided the subject during his reelection campaign.

Solana indicated that 7,000 to 8,000 American troops will probably be part of what he called a "stabilization force" of 20,000 to 30,000 troops needed to help support the Dayton agreements. He said the new force would require a new United Nations mandate, limited to one year.

"I don't think we should stay longer than another year," he said. "I would like to see a progressive disengagement."

The follow-on force would help consolidate gains made so far toward stability and encourage greater freedom of movement in Bosnia for civilians and return of refugees to their homes. The new force would be about one-third to one-half the size of the multinational contingent sent to Bosnia a year ago to implement the Dayton accords.

About 15,000 Americans now serve as part of that force. Its mandate officially ends on Dec. 20.

While Defense Secretary William J. Perry has said the last of the Americans assigned to the initial mission will be out of Bosnia by mid-March, Pentagon officials have said that some units recently sent to the area could be reassigned to the follow-on force.

Solana said German forces would be integrated into the follow-on force, moving for the first time into Bosnia from their current role of providing support from bases in Croatia. The Germans, who would be drawn from a Franco-German brigade stationed in Europe, would be deployed around Sarajevo, Solana said.

That presence of German units in the Balkans, however, has been a highly sensitive issue. Many in Germany believe that, because of history, no German forces should serve outside their own country, least of all in the Balkans, where some of the Nazis' worst atrocities occurred. Those atrocities, carried out mainly against Serbs, make the arrival of Germans controversial in Bosnia too.

As Solana met with U.S. leaders, Bosnia's collective three-person presidency submitted to international pressure at a high-level meeting in Paris and agreed to push forward immediately with the task of building joint, multiethnic institutions.

In the presence of Secretary of State Warren Christopher and foreign ministers of other major powers, Muslim co-president Alija Izetbegovic, his Serb counterpart, Momcilo Krajisnik, and Croat Kresimir Zubak accepted a 13-point plan to complete implementation of the Dayton agreements.

The accords guarantee freedom of movement throughout the country and extend to refugees the right to return to their homes, even in areas now dominated by another ethnic group. Such measures are considered essential if the country so deeply divided by ethnic hatred is to knit itself together.

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