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Clinton Postpones Troop Withdrawl from Bosnia

By Art Pine
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

The Clinton administration said Thursday that it has scrapped plans to withdraw the bulk of the 18,000 U.S. troops in Bosnia by Dec. 20, as initially promised, and now is not likely to have most of the American force out until late January or February.

The change was announced by Kenneth H. Bacon, the Pentagon's spokesman, following a plea by NATO's top military commander, U.S. Army Gen. George A. Joulwan, that U.S. and other NATO forces remain on duty until after the Bosnian elections, now scheduled for September.

Although the administration had cautioned previously that it might keep some U.S. troops in Bosnia for a month or so beyond Dec. 20, when the NATO mission comes to an end, it had planned to begin the pullout in June, leaving a relatively small contingent of U.S. soldiers through mid-December.

But Bacon said Thursday that while some U.S. troops may begin leaving in late September - and the NATO mission in Bosnia still will end officially on Dec. 20 - the United States now plans to keep a "significant force" in the country through January or "maybe longer."

Administration officials also said the United States is likely to continue providing air and logistical support after Dec. 20 - if NATO decides to station troops near Bosnia - to prevent a resumption of fighting in the region.

While officials would not say so publicly, analysts said the slippage reflected the difficulty that civilian authorities in Bosnia have been experiencing in rebuilding the country's governmental and economic structure - including scheduling the first elections.

Although the delay announced Thursday was not an appreciable one, it was expected to draw sharp criticism from Republicans, who have been predicting for months that the administration's initial schedule for bringing the troops back was likely to slide.

Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned Thursday that "if the administration intends to keep U.S. forces in Bosnia longer than previously indicated, it must come back and consult with Congress."

Thursday's announcement marked the administration's most visible acknowledgment so far that the civilian side of the allied peacemaking effort in Bosnia is slipping behind schedule.

Defense Secretary William J. Perry told Congress in March that U.S. troops would "come out of Bosnia no later than Dec. 20," although he cautioned that some could remain there for a few weeks longer because of the time needed for a full withdrawal. Clinton separately made a similar pledge.

When the Bosnian peace accord was signed in Dayton, Ohio, last November, all sides hoped to have a new government in place by now - and an economic reconstruction program under way - with plans for an election sometime in late spring or summer.

But the lack of any formal organization to shepherd the effort, and seemingly intractable delays by the warring factions themselves, have kept the process at a snail's pace. As a result, the elections have been postponed to September, and even that schedule may not be met.

In recent weeks, the allies have tried to help speed the process by permitting U.S. and other NATO military forces to help with some tasks that were supposed to have been reserved for civilian authorities, such as providing security for the inspection of mass grave sites.

However, U.S. Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Brussels earlier this week that there would be no reductions in U.S. troop strength in Bosnia until after the country's September elections.