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NATO Gives Consent to Reduce Force to Maintain Bosnian Truce

By William Drozdiak
The Washington Post

The NATO allies gave unanimous consent Monday to the reduced multinational force that will supervise Bosnia's fragile truce when the mandate for the current peacekeeping mission ends next month.

Ambassadors from the 16 member countries issued orders to senior military commanders to draw up detailed contingency plans for the 30-member stabilization force, or SFOR, that is expected to succeed an international contingent now twice its size that has worked over the past year to ensure complete compliance with the Dayton peace accords.

The new NATO-led force is expected to take up operations once the mandate of its predecessor expires December 20. The alliance foreign and defense ministers have scheduled meetings ahead of that date to approve its final operating plan, and the United Nations Security Council will vote on a new resolution endorsing its deployment in coming weeks.

The main obstacle to NATO's continuing peacekeeping presence in Bosnia was removed when President Clinton announced Friday that the United States will contribute 8,500 troops, despite earlier promises to pull all troops back home by the end of the year. France and other European allies said they would not keep their troops in Bosnia unless the United States did so.

While pleased by the consensus on maintaining a strong international peacekeeping force in Bosnia, NATO officials said there are still significant differences that must be resolved over the tasks to be undertaken by the new force and the length of its stay.

"Everybody realizes that a smaller force will not be able to do as much," a senior NATO diplomat said. "It is extremely important that having secured the peace in the first year, alliance troops must not be stretched beyond the breaking point in the second year."

The United States is seeking to circumscribe the mandate so that the international force is only assigned to carry out those tasks absolutely necessary to maintain stability and prevent a return to war, diplomats said. The U.S. also wants to set a fixed date for a complete pullout by June 1998.