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Bosnia: NATO Commander Supports Continued Military Presence

Brussels, 28 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, American General Wesley Clark, tells NATO he sees a need for continued military support for the peace process in Bosnia -- after June, 1998 -- and, he asked for a decision by March.

General Clark has not made a request for any specific numbers of troops to stay in Bosnia, after the current SFOR expiration date, but his preference is clear: he thinks a NATO military presence will be required after June, and, as to numbers, "they should be adequate," he says, for carrying out specific, necessary tasks.

Clark today told NATO that, if all troops were withdrawn next year - as originally planned - the peace process would be badly damaged. In particular, he wants continued military support for the civilian peeace-keeping efforts to help refugees return home, to hold free elections, and to encourage freedom of the media.

RFE/RL reports from Brussels that the process Clark outlines looks likely to last about four months. A decision-making period involving not only NATO allies, but also partners in Russia, and Eastern Europe, indeed, the more than 30 countries which currently contribute forces to SFOR.

There is also a timeframe for this process. Clark says, whatever decision is made, he will need instructions by March 1, so that any changes or withdrawals can be done smoothly and with maximum safety for all concerned.

The next step at NATO will be discussion by defense ministers at their Council session next week, followed by further talks in Bonn December 9-10 within the Peace Implementation Steering Committee. December 12, NATO will discuss the issue again with all the countries that contribute forces, in particular, with Russia. And, then, Alliance foreign ministers will seek to reach conclusions at their Council meeting December 16.

NATO officials tell RFE/RL that the most likely outcome of all these meetings will still not be a firm decision, involving specific numbers of troops, rather, a series of options to be put before Alliance military leaders and SFOR contributing countries. They will be asked what resources they would need to fulfill various, potential tasks in Bosnia.

The aim of the process would be to shape public opinion, expecially in the U.S., that NATO troops should stay. Some reductions could be made, but officials NATO officials tell RFE/RL that rumors of a force of 20,000 are pure speculation. The present troop level is 34,000.

What does seem clear already, however, is that the sharp reduction in NATO forces originally envisioned for the final months of the SFOR mandate will not occur. None of the allies apparently now thinks in these terms.