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Bosnia: Clinton To Visit U.S. Troops Over Holiday

Washington, 16 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- President Bill Clinton plans a return holiday visit to U.S. troops deployed in Bosnia as international discussions continue on what must be done next to maintain peace and rebuild society in the former Yugoslav republic.

The White House said Monday that Clinton will make a very brief visit to Tuzla, where most of the 8,500 U.S. troops in Bosnia are headquartered. Clinton also plans to travel to Sarajevo, capital of the Bosnian federation.

White House spokesman Michael McCurry says Clinton would like to meet with the leaders of the federation, a Croat, a Muslim and a Serb who share the presidency. However, McCurry said no meetings have been scheduled yet.

McCurry said Clinton plans to leave Washington on Sunday and be in Bosnia on Monday, and then return to the U.S.

Clinton visited the first contingent of American troops who were part of NATO's peacekeeping force in January 1996. The troops there now are part of NATO's stabilization force of about 30,000.

Clinton said Monday the reason for his trip is "to thank the American personnel for being there and for spending their Christmas there and for the sacrifices they've made to bring peace to Bosnia." He said he wanted to "tell them why their mission is important."

McCurry said a presidential visit to Bosnia has "been in the making for quite some time." It is customary for U.S. presidents to visit during the Christmas season with American troops on active duty in foreign countries.

The U.S. troops in Bosnia are scheduled to be withdrawn next June when the mission of the NATO stabilization force is mandated to end, but there is talk now of maintaining some sort of international presence in Bosnia to prevent renewed civil war.

McCurry said there has been for some time what he called a "developing consensus in the international community," for an international presence in Bosnia after June 1998. He said the U.S. and its allies are now beginning to look at what shape that presence might take.

McCurry said Clinton has not made any final decisions about what kind of structure might be set up for Bosnia after the mission of the stabilization force ends. McCurry said the U.S. and its NATO allies are reviewing the issue now. He said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will be in Brussels today and tomorrow (Wednesday) for talks with the foreign ministers of the North Atlantic Council. McCurry said he expects the ministers to authorize what he called a more formal review of the options for NATO and Bosnia.

The spokesman said a continued NATO presence does not automatically mean that U.S. forces will stay on in Bosnia, but he also said that, "the United States is the leader of NATO, and it would be difficult to imagine that kind of mission without the U.S. participating in some fashion."

The U.S. Congress, which is in recess until late January, would be asked to approve the funds for any continued U.S. troop presence in Bosnia, and there is significant opposition in the Congress to the idea of long term U.S. troop deployments there.

Despite that opposition, McCurry said the White House believes the Congress recognizes the progress that has been made since the end of the civil war, but that it also knows that the "important work that's been done needs to continue if we're going to avoid backsliding into the kind of chaos and ethnic strife that characterized the war period. "

McCurry said that, if it could be arranged, Clinton would, in his words, find it most welcome to meet with the Muslim member of the federation presidency, Alija Izetbegovic. He said Clinton's message would be one of reminding the federation leaders of the importance of full implementation of the peace accord, and to express support for the struggle of the Bosnian people to rebuild.