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Bosnian Vote Fraud Forces Diplomats to Delay Election

By John Pomfret
The Washington Post
SARAJEVO, Bosnia

The American diplomat overseeing Bosnia's coming elections announced today that balloting for municipal posts will be delayed because of widespread electoral fraud - meaning that peacekeeping forces might have to remain in place longer than planned.

Presidential and parliamentary elections will take place as planned on Sept. 14. Western military officers said the decision to postpone the municipal balloting, which had also been scheduled for Sept. 14, increases pressure for a significant number of U.S. troops serving in NATO's Bosnia peacekeeping force to remain deployed in Bosnia past the one-year deadline set by President Clinton in a pledge to Congress last winter.

Although their presence likely would be in another framework, the officials predicted, the troops will be needed to help police the municipal voting when it is held. This, they added, could be sometime around May 1997, after Bosnia's harsh winter.

The U.S. diplomat, Robert Frowick, said at a packed news conference that his decision to postpone elections in Bosnia's 109 municipalities was prompted by "a widespread abuse of rules and regulations," particularly by the Bosnian Serbs, that "distorted" the electoral process.

In a later interview, Frowick referred to the municipal elections as a "snake pit" and acknowledged the year-long timetable set by last fall's Dayton peace agreement is too short to restore stability to Bosnia.

"We're trying to do too much in too short a time," said Frowick, who is the chief of the Bosnia office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the multinational body supervising the elections.

Frowick's decision appeared to represent a compromise between Western officials who say Bosnia is not ready for any voting and the U.S. government position that elections must occur regardless of conditions. U.S. officials readily acknowledge in private conversations that they are pushing for the elections because they fear any backtracking in Bosnia could affect Clinton's reelection campaign.

"The United States supports this decision," Assistant Secretary of State John Kornblum said in Washington. "We think, in fact, it's a very clear and decisive step to demonstrate that there are clear rules for holding these elections and that violation of them - in the letter, or in this case their spirit - will not be tolerated." He said Frowick's decision was mandated by evidence of "fairly clear and massive registration irregularities, particularly on the Serb side."

About 5,000 U.S. Army troops in Germany are being trained to be sent to Bosnia to help protect the planned pullout of most U.S. peacekeepers in December. Tuesday, Pentagon spokesmen left open the possibility this "covering" force might remain in Bosnia next year.

"There's been no extension of the (NATO force's) mandate past Dec. 20 but I cannot confirm a date when this covering' mission will be complete," a Pentagon official said.

The issue of NATO's further engagement in Bosnia is highly political because of Clinton's pledge to have the 20,000 U.S. troops he sent to implement the Dayton accord home in one year. At his news conference, Frowick said he believes the most reasonable time for the municipal elections would be next spring and suggested NATO's continued presence would help facilitate the vote.

But after a telephone conservation with U.S. officials in Washington, Frowick backtracked, saying perhaps the voting could be held in midwinter - a proposal several long-serving Western officials in Bosnia described as doubtful given the snowbound passes, icy roads and foggy skies that would imperil the movement of thousands of voters and balloting supplies.

Many Western officials have argued conditions here defy holding "free and fair" elections as mandated by the Dayton accord.

Bosnia's media are for the most part state-controlled. There is still no freedom of assembly. Free speech is often followed by police beatings. Candidates have been jailed, threatened and hounded off the ballot by armed toughs working for Muslim, Serb or Croat nationalist parties.

In a recent statement Soren Jessen-Petersen, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' special envoy to Bosnia, predicted the elections "will produce hard-line winners and xenophobic nationalists committed to the maintenance of hostile, homogeneous statelets."