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U.S. Offers to Send Troops to Assist Bosnian Pull-Out

By Art Pine
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

President Clinton formally offered Thursday to send up to 20,000 U.S. ground troops to help evacuate the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina if the allies decide to withdraw in the face of increased harassment and hostage-taking by nationalist Serb forces there.

Pentagon officials said the United States probably would supply between 40 percent and 50 percent of an allied evacuation force of up to 45,000 troops. The U.S. military also is likely to provide the bulk of the air- and sea-lift for the operation.

The mission would mark the first time that the United States has sent ground troops to Bosnia. U.S. officials emphasized that the president's decision involved only a commitment "in principle," and said the administration would insist on approving any evacuation plan in advance and consulting with Congress.

The operation would be conducted by 16-country NATO, and almost certainly would be under the command of a U.S. general or admiral.

A senior U.S. official said the United States would contribute "a substantial part" of the total NATO force - which he said could involve up to nine brigades, complete with tanks and heavy weapons - but he said no firm decisions had been made on how many troops may be involved.

However, some of those familiar with the operation said an estimate of between 15,000 and 20,000 U.S. troops would be "a good working number" for such a venture. While some would come from U.S. bases in Europe, most would be from bases in the United States.

Although U.S. officials stressed that the allies have not yet decided to withdraw any peacekeeping troops, NATO strategists are in the early stages of drafting military plans for the evacuation. They are working on an array of contingency proposals, from a simple loading operation involving fewer troops, to a full-scale extraction under heavy fire. Allied defense ministers will meet to review the plans next week.

Officials said Clinton's announcement was designed to reassure France, Britain and other U.S. allies that the United States will help evacuate their troops, despite the recent controversy here over the use of American forces in peacekeeping-related missions.

U.S. officials delivered a similar message to the allies privately last week, but apparently failed to quell some doubts. Policy-makers hope that "clearing up any ambiguity" publicly will help heal the rift in NATO and persuade some member countries to leave their troops there longer.

Congressional Republicans appeared ready to accept the notion of U.S. participation in such an evacuation, but they served notice that they would insist that Clinton seek formal authorization from Congress before actually committing U.S. troops.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., also noted pointedly that withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers would clear the way for lifting the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims and carrying out more aggressive NATO air strikes, which GOP senators have endorsed.

The administration had advocated both policies over the months, but was unable to put them into effect because Europeans feared their peacekeeping troops would then become targets of stepped-up retaliation by the Serb nationalists.

However, a senior U.S. official hinted Thursday that the administration may resume pressing the allies both to lift the embargo and to intensify NATO air strikes against the Serb nationalists if the U.N. peacekeeping troops are forced to withdraw.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was disturbed that Clinton had made the troop offer. Pell said he was opposed to any use of U.S. ground troops in Bosnia.

Reaction from the United States' NATO allies was muted. Britain welcomed Clinton's offer but emphasized that a pull-out of U.N. peacekeeping forces still was not imminent. French officials did not comment on the decision.

There currently are about 24,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops in Bosnia, mostly British, French, Canadian and Spanish. Outside analysts have estimated that evacuating the peacekeepers and several thousand U.N. civilian personnel would take between 20,000 and 45,000 NATO troops.